That NIE: Does it Signal a U.S.-Iranian Thaw?

Like sly foxes watching the trapper step into his own trap, European diplomats are saying that the release of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran won't change anything. They will, they said, continue to work for stronger sanctions against Iran both at the United Nations and unilaterally, to pressure Iran to halt its nuclear research. "The NIE has created a lot of noise in Washington. It's created less noise in our capitals," said Neil Crompton, a top British diplomat in Washington, speaking at a forum organized by the pro-Israeli thinktank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But in fact, the NIE changes everything, and Israeli officials told the Jerusalem Post as much. It takes the war option off the table, and in so doing it leaves European-style diplomacy as the only remaining option.

Diplomacy, yes. But don't hold your breath for any sort of strong sanctions. It already appears as if the United States has agreed to postpone the UN Security Council debate on Iran into sometime in early 2008, if it occurs at all. One U.S. official, quoted in the Jerusalem Post, implied that the Europeans were simply confused by the release of the NIE. He said that the European reaction to the NIE is "dumfoundedness," adding: "They don't understand how the American government could be as incompetent as it seems." But it's not a question of incompetence at all. Instead, it's a public sign of the private divisions within the Bush administration. My own suspicion is that Europeans know exactly what is going on: that the more dovish elements in the American national security community brilliantly outflanked the hawks, and it's game over. If there is any incompetence at all, it is entirely within the White House, which found itself incapable of either halting, watering down, or covering up the NIE's conclusions.

So far, criticism of the NIE in the United States has been confined to near-apoplectic responses from the usual suspects: neoconservatives, right-wingers in Israeli intelligence circles, the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard, and others of that ilk, along with Henry Kissinger's chin-stroking op-ed in the Washington Post. A few Republican members of Congress (read: Senator John Ensign, the Nevada gambling king) are calling for a Team B-style commission of inquiry to challenge the NIE, but that's not likely - in part because they'd collide with the White House itself, which had no choice but to endorse the NIE and then try to spin it, once it was out.

An unintentionally humorous response came from Pete Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House intelligence committee, who disparaged the very community he helps oversee. "It has been met with great skepticism by people with better intelligence than we have . . . who have proven sources," he said. Perhaps Hoekstra ought to chair the Knesset's oversight committee, if he feels that strongly about it. In fact, the NIE, which ran more than a hundred pages and had more than a hundred separate footnotes involving classified sources, seems to have had "proven sources" galore. But Hoekstra doesn't think so.

The Republicans running for president, who've largely shut up about Iraq (because the war is so unpopular), may now have to shut up about Iran, too. Rudy Giuliani, perhaps the most war-mongering of the GOP field (thanks in part to Norman Podhoretz, his Iran adviser), is still warning that all-options-are-on-the-table, but he stuttered when trying to go further. "If it's true, if it's correct, if it's accurate, and they warn us it may not be--but if it is, then it shows Iran is susceptible to heavy pressure, because in 2003 there was heavy pressure on Iran," said Giuliani. What he didn't say, of course, is that between 2001 and 2003 Iran had cooperated with the United States in Afghanistan, helped the CIA battle Al Qaeda, and offered a peace treaty of sorts with Washington - only to be rebuffed by the Bush administration, which was busily eyeing Iran as its next conquest after Iraq. In any case, we're treated to the delicious spectacle of hard-right Republicans disparaging the work of the CIA and the other agencies at make up the U.S. intelligence community.

The only remaining justification for war with Iran, now, are the charges that Iran is behind the killing of American soldiers in Iraq. But that rationale, too, is petering out. First of all, American deaths in Iraq have plummeted to record-low levels. Second, U.S. military officials in Iraq - perhaps, like their NIE-writing counterparts, not wanting a war with Iran - have backed off charges that Iran is ferrying weapons across the border. Now, they say, Iran is behaving itself. And this week, Ambassador Ryan Crocker's embassy team will open direct talks with Iran's embassy in Baghdad. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is building bridges to Iran, too - first inviting Iranian President Ahmadinejad to attend a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council and then extending an unprecedented invitation to Ahmadinejad to make the pilgrimage to Mecca this month. For the first time since 2003, it seems that a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations is possible.

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