Just when it seemed that American credibility could not sink any lower, comes word from America's own spy agencies that Iran wasn't making the bomb that George W. Bush said it was.
So, "World War III" and "a nuclear holocaust" are not imminent.
That's good to know before he could've launched a war on Iran, unlike Iraq where he did, though Baghdad had no capacity to make the "mushroom cloud" that Condoleezza Rice said it did.
Given the new intelligence assessment, it's not Iran that's looking like a rogue state but rather the U.S., at least the Bush administration - "running around like a mad man, blade in hand," as Vladimir Putin put it recently.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is exulting in "total victory." Bush is struggling to maintain that he was not wrong. This is not a pretty sight.
What is comforting is that the American intelligence community has spoken truth to power. Unlike Bush, it has learned a lesson or two from Iraq: not to exaggerate and lie, and to admit when wrong.
The spooks acknowledge they were wrong to have said in 2005 that Iran was building the bomb when, in fact, they now think it had stopped doing so in 2003. If Iran does decide to build one, it won't be able to do so for some years.
This conclusion has several serious implications: It refutes the image, carefully constructed, of anti-American, anti-Semitic mad mullahs mixing ingredients in a secret nuclear shed.
The National Intelligence Estimate says simply: "Tehran's decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military cost."
In other words, Iran is not all that different from other nations. The International Atomic Energy Agency is fully vindicated.
It had found no evidence of a weapons program, a conclusion fully backed by Russian intelligence.
The UN agency has not even said that Iran had a weapons program prior to 2003, only that Tehran hadn't been forthcoming about its covert activities dating back to 1988 - a violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Last August, the agency's chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, got Iran to agree to disclose details of that dark period. Last week, he said Iran is making "good progress."
He also said that Iran has 3,000 centrifuges (which enrich uranium) but that he could not guess Tehran's "intentions."
For his consistently nuanced position, he has been subjected to a smear campaign. He, in turn, has said that advocates of war are "crazies" - something many leading Americans have been saying as well, and will say more loudly. Bush faces an uphill battle imposing sanctions on Iran tougher than the ones in place under two Security Council resolutions.
Veto-wielding Russia and China, already wary, are not likely to agree. Britain, Germany and France may try for European Union sanctions. But Italy and Spain have balked.
That would leave the U.S. to toughen its own sanctions, dating back to the 1979 Iranian revolution.
Bush's problem is not just with the nuclear program but rather that Iran refuses to be a client state. It supports Hamas and Hezbollah, and has carved out spheres of influence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran may pull out of the talks with the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, and deal only with the atomic agency in Vienna.
As for the Security Council resolutions, it argues that they are "illegal" - Iran has not violated the nuclear treaty, which allows uranium enrichment. Iran temporarily suspended doing so (2004-2006) only as part of a deal: The European Union would get the U.S. to stop being hostile and negotiate a new relationship. When the EU failed, Iran resumed the program.
A compromise being floated is to have the enrichment done in Russia or by a consortium of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Bahrain).
If Iran can't work out such compromises with the atomic agency, it can do what North Korea did: pull out of the non-proliferation treaty and shut the door on UN inspections. This is the route that non-signatories Israel, India and Pakistan took to develop their own nuclear bombs by stealth. White House hawks, from Dick Cheney down, stand discredited. This is their second setback, the Annapolis conference on the Arab-Israeli conflict being the first. They lost an internal struggle to Rice, who convinced Bush to try for peace. Barak Obama is looking good and Hillary Clinton not. Believing a woman candidate must pander more to the war gallery, she has been belligerent on Iran, while he has said he'd deal directly with the Iranian leaders. Much of North American media have a lot to answer for. They've been an echo chamber of the U.S. administration on Iran, just as they had been on Iraq.
In conclusion, three thoughts:
While Iran's ruling clerics do understand carrots and sticks, Bush has little credibility to use either.
Instead of helping Iran's human rights activists and its strong civil society, he has only strengthened the clerical regime. "No Iranian wants to see what happened to Iraq and Afghanistan repeated in Iran," noted Akbar Ganji, Iran's leading dissident, who spoke at the University of Toronto last week.
At a time when Canada could have played a bridging role, Stephen Harper has let relations deteriorate to the point that there's no Canadian ambassador in Tehran and no Iranian one in Ottawa at this time.
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