The president's policy toward Iran - harsh, threatening and dismissive of any chance at negotiation - was supposedly founded on the belief that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons and had to be stopped. All options, including force, had to be on the table to prevent that calamity from occurring.
We've now learned that the premise behind that policy has been incorrect, that Iran actually abandoned its nuclear weapons program four years ago. In light of that startling discovery, the Bush administration says that from now on its policy toward Iran will be ... harsh, threatening and dismissive of any chance at negotiation, exactly what it had always been. Nothing changes.
Because as President Bush said in a press conference Tuesday, "What's to say they couldn't start another nuclear weapons program?"
Once again, it seems, facts can be rearranged to suit the policy, but policy is seldom rearranged to suit the facts.
The new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran - the consensus of our 16 intelligence agencies - should have been treated as good news by the president. For years, he and others in his administration have stressed the importance of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. If it had nuclear weapons, Iran could theoretically wipe Israel from the map. Nuclear missiles fired from Iran could threaten much of Europe, a risk said to justify installation of missile-defense systems in places such as Poland and the Czech Republic, at American expense. A nuclear Iran also would pose a serious threat to its oil-rich neighbors, such as Saudi Arabia.
At the very least, the new NIE means that we have more time to avoid those dangers. Yet in his press conference Tuesday, Bush did not exactly embrace the good news. Instead, he had the air of an 8-year-old boy who had just learned that Christmas had been canceled. The fact that Iran had abandoned its nuclear weapons program, at least temporarily, meant that he would be pressured to change his approach to Iran, and he wasn't in the least happy about it.
In many ways, the most important conclusion in the NIE was not its statement that Iran had abandoned its weapons program - as the president pointed out, that kind of decision can easily be reversed. But the agencies' guess as to why Iran made that decision was telling:
"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," the NIE concluded. "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."
In more direct terms, a policy that employed both the carrot and the stick, instead of merely the stick, might pay important dividends and convince Iran to drop its weapons program permanently. In the estimate of our intelligence community, Iran's leadership can be reasoned with and treated like that of most other governments. It is not run by wild-eyed radicals, as some have argued, but rather by people who weigh costs against benefits and act accordingly.
We can talk to people like that. We can negotiate with them. Such efforts might not succeed, but they're worth the effort.
Unfortunately, the president is not comfortable with that approach. Offering Iran a more normal economic and diplomatic relationship in return for verifiable guarantees against going nuclear would not give him what he really wants. He doesn't want to change Iran's policies; he wants to change Iran's leadership, replacing it with a pro-American government, as he tried to do in Iraq.
And in pursuit of that vain hope, he is willing to sacrifice goals that are more attainable, realistic and important.
Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor of the AJC. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.
© 2007 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution