Off the Warpath?
The smiles on the faces of several U.S. military personnel at a previously scheduled Washington think tank session on Iran's "bomb" said it all Tuesday: The United States is not going to start a third Middle East war anytime soon.
Monday's new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) stating "with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program" dropped the big one on those in Washington and elsewhere who have been urging the Bush Administration to strike Iran "before it is too late."
Despite President Bush's efforts at his press conference to act as though nothing has changed, everything has. Chuck Frelich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser, called the news "an earthquake" that "gives us more time to explore the diplomatic route." The Nixon Center's Geoffrey Kemp, appearing on the same panel at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agreed. The NIE "changes the political dynamics in this town", he said. "The out of the blue pre-emptive strike . . . is a long way off."
There are still many questions about the new estimate and its origins. The intelligence community, in its eagerness not to promise another "slam dunk", may have erred on the side of caution. Iran has accelerated its overt enrichment program since 2005 and could produce enough fissile material for a bomb in as little as two years, more plausibly by 2015, the estimate said.
But a key conclusion of the NIE is that a negotiated solution is possible. Iran, it turns out, is not a nation of mad mullahs but a country whose "decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach." Its leaders are susceptible to pressure and worried about Iran's international posture. Iran shut down the weapons program in 2003 because it had been caught cheating and in a post-9/11 environment, was worried about the consequences. At the same time it started negotiations with Great Britain, France and Germany-negotiations that it thought would be quickly joined by the United States.
That did not happen. President Bush, at his news conference, misspoke when he said that the United States "facilitated" the European talks with Iran in 2003. In fact, then-under secretary of state John Bolton did nothing to help. He actively tried to sabotage the talks with leaks about threatening Iranian remarks to the Europeans. Bush also misspoke when he said that "at that point in time" (2003) his administration said it would stop blocking Iran's application to join the World Trade Organization and provide spare parts for civilian airliners if Iran halted its program. Those carrots were not put on the table until 2005, shortly before Iranian presidential elections replaced Mohammad Khatami with the more belligerent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The United States did not offer to actually join the negotiations until May 2006-and only then if Iran suspended its uranium program.
Will Bush now pursue a diplomatic option more strenuously? New sanctions will be harder to achieve but it will be easier to justify talks with Tehran. At the very least, Bush will not bomb Iran before he leaves office. And that is something for which everyone around the world-not just the overstretched U.S. military-should be grateful.
Barbara Slavin is senior diplomatic reporter at USA Today on leave as a Jennings Randolph fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation (St. Martin's Press, 2007).