A measure of intelligence

December 05, 2007

The news that America's spy agencies have concluded that Iran stopped its nuclear weapon program four years ago is entirely welcome, for two reasons.

First, the substance of the assessment is great to hear, if it's true. If Iran isn't pursuing nuclear bombs, that's good for the Mideast and good for the world.

Second, the implication of the assessment is heartening, to say the least. It makes the possibility of an American military attack on Iran during the last year of President Bush's term considerably smaller. And that's good news because such an attack - even if Iran did turn out to have a nuclear program - would invite catastrophic consequences for America's standing and interests in the region and around the globe.

The White House can argue that Washington's tough talk and determination to confront Iran led to the decision by Tehran to drop the weapons effort. Fine - Mr. Bush is more than welcome to take credit for the change in status, but only if he grasps that the context has changed and different tactics are called for.

Declare victory in this particular battle, Mr. President - and then build on that victory by opening the door to direct talks with Iran, on, among other subjects, containing any nuclear ambitions it may still harbor. Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, is among those who advocate such a course.

There are, of course, those who wanted to see an attack on Iran, and they have mostly been reacting as if the spies' report is nothing but bad news. They ask why this report is any more accurate than earlier reports, now repudiated - and that's a perfectly good question. Skepticism is never a bad idea, but the new National Intelligence Assessment on Iran puts the burden on the skeptics to show that it is wrong, and that is a major change. Some of the hawks are grumbling that the intelligence has been slanted to support a policy (one they don't like and that they're prone to characterize as appeasement); this has a particularly rich irony about it given the history of their war in Iraq.

In going public with this assessment, the country's intelligence agencies have drastically undermined the credibility of the hawks within the administration, among whom Vice President Dick Cheney has been the fiercest. If this report is a sign that his influence has waned so dramatically, that is another entirely welcome piece of news.

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