We are still in the dark as to what evidence the U.S. turned up that has now convinced U.S. officials that Iran was on the level when it denied nuclear ambitions. It was good news for the world -- and bad news for hawkish neo-conservatives in the U.S. -- when a new U.S. intelligence assessment concluded that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003. President Bush says he learned about it week before last. This blockbuster came from a National Intelligence Estimate that represents a consensus of all U.S. spy agencies. Norman Podhoretz -- one of the founding fathers of the neo-conservative movement -- had urged Bush in a private meeting last September to bomb Iran rather than allow it to acquire nuclear weapons. Whatever prompted the abrupt turnaround, it was enough to give Bush pause before he rushed to attack a third Muslim nation during his waning watch at the White House. Without a handy enemy to spook the American public, the Bush administration seems forlorn. Perhaps we should be nervous. Meanwhile, Iran, feeling vindicated, wants the U.S. to drop its hawkish moves and to refrain from imposing new economic sanctions against it. But Bush has ruled out any softening of U.S. policy -- and he apparently has the support of his allies. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak disputed the U.S. conclusions, saying Israel still believes Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons. Israel is believed to have the only nuclear arsenal in the Middle East but has never permitted the U.N. to inspect its weapons program and has never signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Nor has any U.S. president publicly pressured it to do so. One casualty in the Iran-nuke, no-nuke episode is the credibility of the Bush administration. Bush recently evoked the frightening possibility of "World War III" and Vice President Dick Cheney warned Iran of "serious consequences" if it built a nuclear bomb. For months Iran has been in the bull's eye of American foreign policy as the pundits have focused on an impending attack on its military sites. It has not been a question of "if" but "when" among the experts in some Washington think tanks. Some in the military establishment, including Adm. William, Fallon, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, have been urging the president to hold off from any precipitous action. Iran had consistently denied it was developing nuclear weapons. But up to now it could not convince the U.S. or any of the Western Powers that its uranium enrichment program was for peaceful purposes. Several weeks ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed U.S. claims against Iran and said there was "no evidence" that it was seeking a nuclear arsenal. Among the vindicated is Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who has been scorned by hawkish officials because his agency has been insisting that there was "no evidence" of an undeclared nuclear weapons project in Iran. Of course there are many more questions. What intelligence led to this 180-degree reversal in U.S. foreign policy? Did the U.S. naval buildup in Iran's backyard convince the mullahs that Bush was trigger happy? Or did Bush decide things were bad enough for Republican candidates without adding more U.S. military muscle in the Middle East? Bush told a news conference: "One of the reasons why this is out in the public arena is because I wanted -- and our administration believed that, one -- it was important for the people to know the facts as we see them." Second, he said it was important for the American people to see that there has been a reevaluation of the Iranian issue. How refreshing! The American people could have used such commendable candor and salvaged our national credibility before we invaded and occupied Iraq. Helen Thomas is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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