After months of increasing talk of military strikes against Iran in order to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons, the Bush administration has suddenly received a dose of reality. In what news reports called "A Blow to Bush's Tehran Policy" and "An Assessment Jars a Foreign Policy Debate About Iran", a new National Intelligence Estimate (pdf), representing the consensus view of 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, used its strongest language - "We judge with high confidence" - to say
We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program;
The NIE followed with its language for a lesser certainty - "We assess with moderate-to-high confidence" - to add
we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.
And why this change?
We judge with high confidence that the halt, and Tehran's announcement of its decision to suspend its declared uranium enrichment program and sign an Additional Protocol to its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safeguards Agreement, was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran's previously undeclared nuclear work. ... Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Tehran's decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs. This, in turn, suggests that some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might--if perceived by Iran's leaders as credible--prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program.
As our Words Not War statement said a year ago:
In response to the real threat of Iran's nuclear ambitions, strategic combinations of pressures and incentives must be seriously and persistently tried, beginning with direct negotiations. ... short of full scale war and complete occupation of Iran, military actions will not remove Iran's potential nuclear threat; indeed, it would likely intensify Iran's goal of acquiring nuclear weapons.
Yes, Iran probably is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons (like many other countries), but the way to prevent them is continued diplomacy that offers incentives to cooperate further with international inspections, not reckless talk of military attacks.