President Bush, in his news conference today, said "nothing's changed" about the U.S. approach to Iran. On the contrary, everything has. What the U.S. president failed to acknowledge was that there had been an earthquake in Washington, which came in the form of this week's new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran. The most immediate impact is that the NIE resolved the big question hanging over the last 12 months of Bush's troubled tenure as president: will he attack Iran? The answer now is almost certainly no. The report also means that a host of international actors who are not necessarily friendly to America—from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Russia's Vladimir Putin to Mohamed ElBaradei, the controversial head of the International Atomic Energy Agency—come out looking like winners. America's reputation in the world is the biggest loser.
Most importantly, the new NIE means that the case against Tehran that Bush was busily building up as recently as Oct. 17, when he warned that Iran could start "World War III" if it obtained the bomb, will now be resolved through slow and subtle diplomacy, not war. (That's assuming the Israelis don't act on their own.) In 2005 America's 16 intelligence agencies allowed Bush to keep that "option on the table" by concluding with "high confidence" that Iran was "determined to build a nuclear weapon." Now the spy agencies have concluded with the same "high confidence" that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program—to the extent it had one—back in 2003. While the president said yet again Tuesday that "all options" remain open to him, the new NIE's conclusion suggests that another war would be not only foolish but probably an impeachable offense. In addition, the president will not now be able to marshal the public support he needs for another conflict. All of this may be just the result Bush was looking for, since he knew he would be facing a full-scale rebellion in the Pentagon if he undertook such an action, possibly even the mass resignations of his defense secretary, CENTCOM commander and director of national intelligence.
The second, and less noted, effect of the new NIE is that the already tattered credibility of this administration over its assessment of dangers abroad is now shredded—simply gone with the wind. Whether Bush's earlier assertions about Iran's nuclear program were based on hype or bad information doesn't really matter; all that matters is that Washington has once again demonstrated to the world that it doesn't have the evidence it said it did. And it will be years before future American presidents rebuild that credibility—before they can again lay claim to the kind of trustworthiness that, say, John F. Kennedy had in 1962 when France's Charles de Gaulle declined to examine Washington's photographic evidence of Soviet missile sites in Cuba, declaring that the president's word alone was good enough. "The president's actions have made it far more difficult to get other countries to work with us on Iran or to believe us about anything else," said Sen. Joseph Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. "It's hard to think of a more serious and self-inflicted wound to our national security."
The problem we have created for ourselves is not so much with the new NIE, which seems sober and sound—if sometimes self-contradictory. (How can it assert so confidently that Iran has halted its weapons program when Tehran is still enriching uranium and, the report concludes, "Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to nuclear weapons"?) The real question is what possessed Bush and other senior administration officials—and the writers of the 2005 NIE—to be so confident of their earlier conclusions that Iran was pursuing a weapon? Because now we know that the intel they were citing was, at best, mixed. We should not be fooled by the spin out of the White House that "new" intelligence alone prompted the reassessment. What has changed at least as much as the intel is the cast of characters, and the political atmosphere. Gone are ideologues like John Bolton and Scooter Libby, unremitting hardliners like Bob Joseph, the State Department's counterproliferation chief after Bolton, and politically driven officials like former CIA director George Tenet; newly arrived are pros and pragmatists like Robert Gates, CIA Director Michael Hayden and Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, who have successfully depoliticized intelligence assessments, as they're supposed to be.
The 2005 NIE, by contrast, was likely to have been politically influenced. Over the past several years, while administration officials asserted confidently that Iran was pursuing a bomb, both outside experts—chief among them IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei—and Iranian officials have consistently told reporters that there was little hard evidence of this. On the contrary, there was ample evidence that a real debate was underway in Tehran about whether pursuing a nuclear weapon was wise in the face of international isolation and opprobrium—and this was pretty much the conclusion of the new NIE yesterday. "We don't see a strategic need for a nuclear weapon right now," a senior Iranian official told me two years ago. "That would change, of course, if America attacked. Then we would need one." Or as S.M.H. Adeli, Iran's moderate former ambassador to London, said when I visited Iran in June, "Iran would like to have the technology, and that is enough for deterrence." Other reporters heard similar things. Surely if mere journalists were hearing it, America's intelligence analysts and top officials were getting wind of this consensus as well. So what changed? Simple: the politics surrounding a war with Iran, the departure of ideologues who habitually bent facts to fit prefixed views, and the chastening of a president who, until now, has let them do it.
What of the fallout? And the winners and losers? The administration has handed a huge propaganda victory to the Iranians at a time when they are less compromising than ever on their "right" to enrich. ElBaradei, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has won another windfall in credibility and may bring more countries over to his view that Iran should be permitted to keep some enrichment capability as long as it comes under strict international monitoring. Putin, coming off a questionable election victory, looks positively statesmanlike. Losers may include the Mideast peace process, which was energized by a common sense among the Arab states that they needed to align with the United States and Israel against Iran. Another loser may be Hillary Clinton, whose alignment with hardliners on Iran looks even less perspicacious today, and whose rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination piled on her again today in Iowa. Finally, Washington's moral authority in the world is as low as it has been in memory. Still, if it all goes to preventing an unnecessary war, perhaps it's worth the price.