(photo credit: AP [file])
Whatever one may think of the new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report on Iran's nuclear intentions and capabilities, there is no doubt it provides some telling and timely insights into a regime whose true direction and condition many analysts here in Jerusalem have been trying to discern for the past year.
That regime is the Bush administration.
As to the substance of the NIE report itself, it's impossible to assess the accuracy of its claim that Teheran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and has not resumed it, without knowing the source of the raw intelligence that provided the basis for that conclusion.
Administration officials have said the dramatic reversal of a previous NIE report two years ago, which had concluded the exact opposite about Iranian nuclear weapons development, was based in part on data received fairly recently.
One can only wonder what the information was, how it was interpreted, and especially why this report was released - not long after the US director of national intelligence, Vice Admiral Michael McConnell, had commented that such NIE reports would not be made public.
The common assumption of many Washington observers is that the veteran intelligence bureaucracy, after years of chafing under pressure by the Bush/Cheney White House to "shape" its information in a way that would support the administration's ideological policy goals (especially during the WMD debate in the run-up to the Iraq invasion), has finally struck back to derail any possible US-led military action against Iran.
If this is so - if the intelligence community really felt it could defy and embarrass the White House with impunity in this manner, just six weeks after President George W. Bush warned of a potential "World War III" in relation to the Iranian nuclear threat - it gives a good sign of just what kind of weakened condition the administration is in as it limps into its last lame-duck year.
Still, this was not some lone intelligence estimate leaked to the press by an off-the-record source, but an official consensus report both Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney discussed and signed off on before its release. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley was quick to assert that it supported the administration's policy of putting international pressure on Teheran, since the NIE also concluded that was what convinced the Iranians to halt their weapons program in the first place four years ago.
Many others will interpret it differently, of course (and already have), asserting that the White House overstated the threat and arguing that now is the time to engage Iran diplomatically rather than trying to isolate it.
The latter point is one that advocates of even more vigorous sanctions against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's radical Islamist regime can continue to argue against by citing certain points in the NIE analysis (for more details you can read the document at http://www.dni.gov/press-releases/20071203-release.pdf).
Even they would have to concede, though, that the report, if taken at face value, has made it much harder - if not impossible - to politically sell the idea of any US military action against Iranian nuclear facilities in the near future.
Which raises the question of whether this is actually a consequence of the NIE report that the Bush administration can not only live with, but is not at all displeased at having to accept. It is even arguable that the release of this report does not contradict current White House aims, but is another sign (just like last week's Annapolis conference) of the Bush administration's shifting strategies and priorities in this region.
You wouldn't think so just by listening or reading the rhetoric of the Bush government's domestic political opponents, whose sole criteria for judgment seems to be current troop levels in Iraq and the president's determination to maintain a US military presence there.
Yet the fact is that a White House in which Hadley, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (a former member of the Iraq Study Group that advocated engagement with Iran) are the dominant foreign policy voices - rather than weakened Cheney, a banished Donald Rumsfeld, or such MIA neo-conservative voices as Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith or John Bolton - is naturally going to be assessing the Iran challenge from a different perspective.
The White House may have tried to keep this report from going public, as some pundits have suggested. However, having claimed proudly to have forged at Annapolis a coalition of Arab states in opposition to Iran and its radical Islamist proxies, Bush and Rice might well be thinking that it might be handy at this stage to have a reason to implicitly back down from the military option that those "moderate" Muslim allies so ardently oppose. That's certainly what the NIE report conveniently provides, even if that won't be publicly acknowledged by the administration.
What does the NIE analysis really tells us about Iranian nuclear intentions and capabilities? That's anybody's guess. But from a Jerusalem viewpoint, the message it sends from Washington seems to be: If you're thinking of a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, Israel - you're on your own.
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>