For most people Washington’s second thoughts about the seriousness of the Iranian nuclear “threat” will come as a great relief. Those in the Bush administration who appeared bent on forcing a military confrontation with Tehran some time next year will now face greater difficulties in making their case. George Bush’s “third world war” is on hold — at least for now.

The surprise reversal in US official thinking, embodied in the CIA’s declassified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), has also opened up a rare chance for substantive dialogue with Tehran, ranging beyond this year’s limited talks on Iraqi security. “I don’t think you can overstate the importance of this,” said Republican senator Chuck Hagel. “If we’re wise here, if we’re careful, I think we have some opportunities.” As Manouchehr Mottaki, Iran’s foreign minister, and other moderate conservative Iranian leaders publicly welcomed the US reappraisal on Dec. 4, Senate majority leader Harry Reid urged the White House to mount a “diplomatic surge” to capitalise on the

unexpected turnabout. Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser, seemed ready to embrace the idea, although he warned that it took two to tango.

“We need to keep the pressure up but make clear there is a path for negotiation that will assess Iranian concerns,” Hadley said. “But at the end of the day, the Iranians have to signal that they’re willing to accept a negotiation path.” Belated US recognition that Iranian policy was being dictated by rational considerations of legitimate national and regional interest, rather than by the dangerous rantings of “mad mullahs”, will also go down well in Tehran. “Our assessment that Iran halted the [bomb-making] programme 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 said.

“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 programme.” Yet this saga is far from over. Whether Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and fellow hardliners will take the proffered carrot is one of many imponderables arising from the US volte-face. Iran’s president has played the “nuclear card” to telling effect in rallying domestic opinion, intimidating Arab neighbours, and forcing the west to take Iran seriously.

Bush’s insistence that Iran must still be considered dangerous even if it merely has the “knowledge” needed for bomb-making — and that the US must continue to pursue UN, allied and unilateral efforts to isolate Tehran diplomatically and economically — showed that potential for confrontation remained. The famously stubborn Bush and his hawkish vice-president Dick Cheney were never likely to suddenly admit they were wrong and make nice with Tehran.

An affronted Israel, which believes it is in Iran’s sights, certainly holds the latter view. The defence minister, Ehud Barak, flatly rejected the US findings: “It’s apparently true that in 2003 Iran stopped pursuing its military nuclear programme for a time. But in our opinion, since then it has apparently continued that programme.” All the same, Bush will now struggle to make his case for additional international punitive measures against Iran. Russia, China and others such as Germany may use the NIE to urge negotiations.

The International Atomic Energy Agency led by the much-criticised Mohammad ElBaradei will rightly feel vindicated in its careful prior judgments. And Democratic party presidential candidates will be encouraged in their arguments that Bush and Cheney were exaggerating the problem and spoiling for a fight. Hillary Clinton has been quick to make the point.

The story inside this story will obsess Washington for weeks to come. The extraordinary way in which the NIE was openly published (rather than partially leaked or kept secret, as would normally be the case) took everybody unawares — even Bush was only told of its final conclusions last week. On the face of it the decision to go public looks like a case of high Washington politics — a pre-emptive strike against the White House by intelligence agencies and military chiefs determined not to be suckered, as they were before the Iraq war, into producing intelligence to fit a preordained policy.

That the CIA and others felt able to mount such a coup is a measure of Bush’s weakness and their own lingering anger over the Iraq WMD debacle. Yet for all that, the spooks admit they are still unsure of Iran’s intentions. The irony here, amusing if it were not so deadly serious,

is that having been badly wrong about Iraq a chastened intelligence community, erring on the side of caution, may also be wrong about Iran. — The Guardian