After years of trying to build awareness of the threat from Iran, the release this week of a new National Intelligence Estimate claiming that it has no current nuclear-weapons program has sunk the campaign to keep that Islamist republic in quarantine.
That is not the spin coming out of the administration or from many of its supporters.
Instead, some of them claim the finding that Iran abandoned its nuclear program in 2003 is proof that an aggressive American foreign policy, mixing diplomatic sanctions, threats and military strikes, can bring rogue regimes to their senses.
Nice try. But, if the Iranians were scared out of a nuclear infatuation (as Libya apparently was after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq), then why have they spent the last four years busily — and publicly — defending their right to go nuclear and holding ceremonies commemorating each step along the way?
The same document, which reverses a 2005 finding from the same source that claimed the Iranians were working on a bomb, also points out that a nuclear capability is still the long-term goal and acknowledges the scientific work that's been accomplished to get there. There's no sense either in the piece of just how close the Iranians were when they dropped the program.
But whatever the country is planning to do — or is doing now without the knowledge of our spies — the proclamation that there's no current nuclear program puts an end to all the Bush administration's hopes for increased sanctions on Iran.
President Bush was right when he noted after the document's release that Iran was and remains dangerous, and that nothing has really changed. Iran is the leading exporter of terror in the world via Hezbollah and Hamas. Its president has threatened Israel with genocide, and its religious leaders (who hold the real power in the country) have the goal of imposing their radical ideas about Islam throughout the region and the world.
Supporters of an aggressive policy of Iran containment, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, can claim and be right that the details of the report buttress the belief that it's a nation that must be restrained.
But in the absence of an imminent nuclear threat, those who still think that either Russia or China will go along with the West's push for more sanctions are dreaming. And anyone who thinks the Western European governments who've been reluctant passengers on Bush's anti-Iran bandwagon won't now get off promptly is also not paying attention.
That's bad news for a number of reasons, of which only the most prominent is the fact that the NIE might be wrong.
We can leave aside the fact that it makes no sense for a nation like Iran, which is sitting on one of the biggest oil reserves in the world, to be expending so much treasure on peaceful uses of nuclear energy rather than military ones. We can also discount the fact that Israeli intelligence sources, which have a slightly better track record than Washington's spooks, disagree with the NIE.
This is, after all, the same U.S. group that two years ago were sure the Iranians were developing nukes; that four years ago assured Bush that the proof Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction was a "slam dunk;" and that utterly failed to predict the Sept. 11 attacks or prepare Americans for their aftermath.
If these operatives are wrong again, it won't matter whether the motive for their newfound caution stems from an overreaction to their Iraq mistakes or, as some Bushites now claim, a politically inspired move by some in the intelligence community to stop the use of force against Iran.
If, as the document admits, the Iranians decide to go nuclear at some point in the not-too-distant future — something that will be facilitated by the reported construction of centrifuges — then it will be too late to reassemble the coalition of concerned nations to do something about what was billed as an urgent problem.
As those urging action on Iran have stated in the past, once Iran crosses the nuclear threshold, the only options then will be acquiescence or war.
All that notwithstanding, the NIE finding means that the air is out of the balloon for the push for Iran divestment and international sanctions. And that means both our European "allies," and the Russians and Chinese, can go back to business as usual when it comes to trading with Tehran. It also means that the Israeli diplomatic campaign to raise awareness about Iran won't be going anywhere either.
But the toll on American diplomacy is greater than that.
The rationale behind the recently completed Middle East summit in Annapolis, Md., was that opposition to Iran throughout the region would be the impetus for support for a renewed peace process. With the nuclear question now off the table — and with Europe almost certainly dropping out of the argument — how exactly do Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice propose to convince the so-called "moderate" Arabs to remain interested in isolating Iran?
Left With Abbas
All of which leaves us with a Mideast policy that, at present, consists almost solely of an irrational belief in the peaceful intentions of the Palestinians and their leaders.
It was one thing for Bush to push hard for Israel to go to Annapolis and to start final-status talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as part of a global vision that had, as its centerpiece, the goal of stopping Iran.
With that central prop torn away from our foreign policy — and without belief in the nuclear peril from Iran that both Washington and Jerusalem have been promoting — all that's left is faith in Abbas and the allegedly moderate Arabs who back him.
You needn't be a peace skeptic to understand that Abbas hasn't the power or the ability to make a deal, or to finally end Palestinian terror, even if Israel retreated from the West Bank, as it did from Gaza. The fact that three of his own "policemen" celebrated the Annapolis meeting by murdering a Jew in the West Bank in order to make a political point should have reminded us that the differences between Abbas' Fatah and its Hamas rivals are more style than substance.
All of which means that Bush's policy has now officially gone from a prayer to a joke.
That will leave Israel once again isolated and trying to defend itself against false charges that its "occupation" of the territories is the impetus for Palestinian terrorism and the sole cause of the conflict.
If the NIE is right, we should be thankful that the ability of Iran to commit nuclear genocide might not be in the cards. But right or wrong, the administration now finds itself painted into a corner — with no solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict in sight, and no hope of rallying the world against a key Islamist threat.
Even if there are no nukes in Tehran's future, that's a pretty frightening thought for both Israelis and Americans.
Contact Jonathan S. Tobin via e-mail at: [email protected] com.