Iran’s nonexistent nuclear program

The credibility of U.S. intelligence is under the microscope again, and so is the Bush administration’s use and abuse of intelligence in foreign policy.

It’s a relief that the intelligence community is capable of reversing its 2005 assessment that Iran has an active nuclear weapons program, even knowing that the release of the new National Intelligence Estimate -- a collective best guess by 16 agencies -- would all but demolish President Bush’s Iran agenda. This means American spooks have learned from their mistakes in Iraq. They mustered the courage to ignore the prevailing political winds in search of the truth.

It’s disturbing, however, that these revelations come just weeks after Bush invoked the specter of a World War III over a nuclear-armed Iran and Vice President Dick Cheney made thinly veiled threats against the country -- all based on doubtful intelligence.

Now it seems that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and probably hasn’t restarted it. Apparently “shock and awe” worked, but in Tehran instead of Baghdad. The mullahs were known to have been rattled when the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein in under four weeks, a feat Tehran had failed to accomplish in eight years of war. Moreover, Iran had been caught red-handed in a covert nuclear program and was subjected to unpleasantly invasive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency and widespread international condemnation.

Evidence that the theocrats are not messianic and can be deterred is good news. Now we need a realistic strategy to convince them that a nuclear breakout is a permanently bad idea. Unfortunately, having rattled the sabers, Bush and Cheney can hardly preach restraint to Tehran. Nor are they likely to persuade Russia or China to forfeit their lucrative economic ties with Iran to prevent a nuclear weapons threat that’s a decade or more away. Worse, should the United States uncover future evidence that Iran has restarted its nuclear weapons program, the mullahs will claim that Washington is once again crying wolf.

The changed U.S. thinking also prompts questions about British, French and German intelligence. Were there dissenters? Or was this another case of international intelligence group-think? Russian President Vladimir V. Putin appears to have been better informed. He has steadfastly refused to endorse tough sanctions, saying he saw no evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. Ironically, the U.S. reassessment validates the Russian intelligence service and undercuts the Israelis, who’ve insisted that Tehran is hellbent on getting the bomb.

Bush is correct to say that the revised intelligence estimate does not warrant a fundamental change in policy. A nuclear-armed Iran should be deterred. The tragedy for U.S. security and global peace is that Bush has twice squandered his chances to lead that vital effort.