This just in: the Third World War has been cancelled. Iran, a founder member of the Axis of Evil, once deemed to be bent on world domination at the point of a nuclear weapon, turns out to have been about as threatening as a teddy bear. Well, an inoffensively named, non-Sudanese teddy bear, I should quickly emphasise.
There we were, all thinking that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian leader, was painstakingly fashioning a nuclear bomb to further his dreams of a new caliphate, when it turns out that he and the peace-loving mullahs of Tehran were actually busy beating their swords into ploughshares. That at least was the startling verdict of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, released to widespread shock on Monday.
The publication of this NIE may come to be regarded as a latterday, real-world, but timelier, equivalent of that famous graffito once scrawled on a bathroom wall: “Archduke Ferdinand Found Alive: First World War All a Big Mistake.”
The document, the studied conclusion of the work of 16 different US intelligence agencies, said that Iran had been pursuing a nuclear weapons programme but suspended it in 2003. Though it retains important knowhow and still seeks civilian nuclear power, Iran is many years away from having a military capability, it added.
The news has been widely reported as another intelligence embarrassment for the Administration of George W.Bush, and so it is. Less than two months ago, even as the Government was compiling its report, Mr Bush was cautioning that Iran was on course to launch World War III and had to be stopped. At a minimum that is further confirmation that internal co-ordination is not a strong point in the Administration's policymaking process.
Also correct is the general reaction that the document eliminates the possibility of a US strike on Iran any time before President Bush leaves office. This is seen, inevitably, in the clich�d prism through which the world has come to view America, as a blow to the gunslinging Texan with the mad eyes and the smug grin.
The other main conclusion everyone seems to be drawing from the NIE is that the revelation marks the end of the intense diplomatic pressure on Iran to comply with international rules about its nuclear programme. If this is true it would be highly unfortunate.
First, while welcome news, the latest intelligence should be treated with at least as much scepticism as America's critics have directed at almost every other piece of US intelligence to have become public in the past few years. It was just two years ago that the same agencies produced an estimate that expressed “high confidence” that Iran was still developing a nuclear weapons programme. Now, it says, citing improved intelligence, but with the same degree of “high confidence”, that Iran had actually abandoned that programme two years before that last report was published.
This dizzying inversion is sadly of a piece with the track record of the American intelligence services. In the early 1990s they were confident that Iraq was nowhere near developing a nuclear weapon. When Saddam Hussein was forced to admit weapons inspectors at the end of the first Gulf War they discovered to their surprise that he was, in fact, not much more than a year away from nuclear capability (which, by the way, must confirm that he was, as well as being among the cruellest leaders ever to have soiled a presidential palace, also one of the stupidest. If he had just waited a year or so before invading Kuwait, the world would surely not have been able to resist his nuclear blackmail).
Then, in 2002, the intelligence agencies said, with high confidence, that Iraq still possessed weapons of mass destruction, including materials and expertise that could produce a nuclear bomb. A year or so later we learnt that it abandoned those efforts in the late 1990s.
So US intelligence was evidently wrong on those first two Iraq judgments. Now it says it was wrong on its first crucial estimate on Iran. I know military intelligence is supposed to be an oxymoron but this is like weather forecasting. It should certainly not be the basis for declaring peace in our time and welcoming those nice Iranians back into the global family.
Even if, just this once, the intelligence is correct, Tehran is still enriching uranium for supposedly peaceful purposes but can easily switch it quickly to military use. Iran is still supplying weapons and money to terrorist organisations, still trying to subvert democratically elected governments in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Iraq. And remember, if Iran really did drop its nuclear ambitions, how did that come about? According to the NIE it was because of “international pressure”.
Now what kind of international pressure was Tehran facing in 2003? Was it the terrifying reality of European-led economic sanctions? Unlikely, since the Europeans were only just starting down that long and winding and ultimately not very painful path for the Iranians in 2003.
What else was going on in 2003? You may remember that the US had just invaded Iraq with the explicit intention of discontinuing its weapons capabilities. (Iran, by the way, certainly believed Saddam had WMD back then.) It's hard to believe the episode did not concentrate Iranian minds. Another unsung benefit of the removal of Saddam.
There may be one other really good piece of news out of this latest unexpected development. The whole Middle East is in turmoil now, and not necessarily in a bad way. In Iraq the prospect of a lasting historic settlement is getting steadily closer. The Bush Administration is reaching harder for an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Iran is in many ways the key to all this. In the past few years it has been gradually extending its influence throughout the Middle East, based at least in part on widespread fear among its ethnic and religious foes that it is close to crossing the threshold of military nuclear capability. If that is no longer the case it suddenly and dramatically changes the balance of power. Iran's leverage is significantly weakened — and so too are its proxies and friends in Hezbollah and Hamas and among the Iraqi Shia extremists.
The latest intelligence — if by some strange chance it turns out to be correct — could be another small but significant piece of good news for a benighted region.