Leader Blues

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

EDITORIALS>>No nukes in Iran

Americans awoke yesterday to a morning that was as cloudless figuratively as it was literally. That ominous thunderhead that forecast war with Iran had dissipated overnight almost miraculously.

The government declassified the summary of a new national intelligence estimate that concludes definitively that Iran halted its program to develop nuclear weapons more than four years ago and never restarted it.

That was the conclusion of the governmentís 16 spy agencies ó yes, we have 16 separate agencies engaged in foreign intelligence work ó and it flies in the face of the administrationís increasingly frantic warnings that the Iranians are on the verge of producing nuclear warheads that could imperil western Europe if not the United States. Vice President Dick Cheney has been systematically building the case for a pre-emptive strike to prevent Iranís becoming a nuclear power. Only last month President Bush warned that if Iran were permitted to build a nuclear bomb, World War III and a holocaust could be around the corner.

That is over although an obviously demoralized Bush insisted yesterday morning that Iran remained a grave danger to Middle East and our own security. But barring an incident of Machiavellian design the threat of a third war front in the Middle East is over for a time. There will not be another congressional vote that would give some cover for an invasion or an aerial attack like the resolution declaring Iranís Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. At least in the presidential race, that resolution and specifically Sen. Hillary Clintonís support for it have been characterized as a figleaf for an attack. Even our own Sen. Mark Pryor, who voted for it, will not lend his imprimatur again.

Preventing the nuclear breakthrough was the foreign-policy cornerstone of the presidentís final year in office. A full-blown invasion or even a blitz of Iranís nuclear-enrichment sites seemed illogical given the nationís overextended military commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq and its faltering prestige in the Arab world, but it was also hard to see the administrationís heated rhetoric leading anywhere else.

The new NIE, which concluded that a 2005 intelligence report claiming just the opposite was spurious, will not advance the countryís efforts to construct new global economic pressures on Iran to forsake nuclear enrichment and open its facilities to international inspections, including United Nations sanctions, but perhaps it will persuade the administration to open direct diplomatic channels itself as, for example, even our own Mike Huckabee has suggested.

Neither will it increase national or international confidence in American intelligence, so badly shaken by the historic failures on Iraq. An NIE in 2002 said Iraq had an ongoing nuclear-weapons program and that it was on the verge of producing warheads and delivery systems.

That persuaded Congress to pass the fatal resolution that Bush used to invade Iraq. It turned out that the chief American inspector in Iraq in the late 1990s and the UN inspection team were right all along. Iraqís rudimentary weapons program had been destroyed by 1996 and the regime had abandoned it. Now a consensus estimate by all U. S. spy agencies agrees that both the international atomic energy agency and the government of Iran have been right all along. The enhanced-enrichment program since 2003 has been for electricity purposes and not, at least so far, with any design to build weapons.

The president Tuesday morning had a different spin. The estimate should not further undermine his administrationís credibility, he said. It did assert that Iran once had a rude weapons-research program (no credible person ever disputed that) and then gave it up, so it could easily undertake it again, he said. Besides, Mr. Bush said, owing to the demonstrable failures on Iraq, he had reformed the intelligence system and now it produces a fine and reliable estimate that all of us can rely on.

We can only trust that he is right.