The American intelligence community this time has learnt an important lesson: the release of classified reports skewed to reinforce the administration's biases or to help promote a commitment by hawks in that administration to go to war, as happened in Iraq, could have disastrous consequences.

There is a case to be made, in other words, for an intelligence community willing to question the conventional wisdom and assert its independence from policymakers.

The new conclusions made public earlier this week by the National Intelligence Estimate, representing the consensus of all 16 American spy agencies (traditionally known as "the mother of all intelligence reports"), is that Iran halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003, contradicting a judgment by President George W. Bush and other US officials that Tehran was hell-bent on building nuclear bombs, thereby threatening to bring about an apocalyptic third world world.

Clearly, the NIE undermines the very foundation of that argument and thus undercuts much of Washington's aggressive policy towards Iran, whose leaders have often been depicted by administration officials, not to mention Israeli rhetoric to which these officials are notoriously responsive, as irrational clerics with fanatical views. In fact, analysts who authored the NIE posit quite a different picture. Iran's political leaders, they write, are very rational individuals indeed who are fully informed about the implications of what they are doing. "Tehran's decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach", states the NIE, "rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs". Chalk that off as another nail in the coffin of the myth of the extremists running amok in the region.


It remains to be seen what impact the NIE would have on American policy towards Iran, but the report's ancillary byproduct will be to rehabilitate, or at the least restore some integrity to, an intelligence community that on the eve of war in Iraq contributed to the embarrassment of having the President of the United States go out on a limb, in his State of the Union message to Congress, with the claim that Saddam Hussain was importing "enriched uranium" from Niger, and of having Colin Powell, the then secretary of state, go out on another limb, in his address to the UN Security Council, with the equally improbable claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction "mounted on mobile trucks".

Similar hyperbolic statements were made at the time by other high government officials, from the vice president to the secretary of defence, all intended to whip up public support for a military adventure that turned into a debacle and whose rationale, advanced by various intelligence agencies, turned out to be unfounded.

Be that as it may, the US justification for potential military action against Iran, a country representing an imminent nuclear threat, is now gone, as is its ability to garner international support for tight sanctions.

This leaves the current, lame-duck administration with two options: it can sit on its hands, continuing its bellicose posture towards the Islamic republic (and remain isolated for the next year it has in the White House), or do the right thing and open direct talks with Tehran, thus "doing the next administration a favour", as one commentator put it in the Washington Post last Wednesday.

Washington may find that it has no alternative but to eat humble pie and engage Iranians, even were that engagement to be initially no more than diplomatic badinage. The US has already set that precedent in its foreign policy when it engaged its putative enemies in talks, from Chinese Communist leaders in the 1970s to recalcitrant PLO leaders in the 1990s. Many in our part of the world have become alarmed at the deterioration of American-Iranian relations, which appeared to point to military action, just as we have scoffed at the notion, propounded by the US, that Iran is a "Shiite threat" to the "Sunni Arab world" while Israel is our potential ally, friend and neighbour with whom we should have an entente cordiale.

Meanwhile, Iran, to be sure, continues to enrich uranium for a civil nuclear energy programme, not considered by international law a weapons programme because it is conducted at openly declared facilities under international supervision governed by Non-Proliferation Treaty guidelines, which allow a country to produce nuclear fuel for civilian needs. As if to dispel any lingering doubts, NIE estimated that even if Iran were to restart a weapons programme now, the country would find it difficult to produce enough enriched uranium for a single weapon before the middle of the next decade. Moreover, the report added, it is doubtful that Tehran "currently intends to develop nuclear weapons".

Fine, let's utter a sigh of relief that Iran does not possess weapons of mass destruction, and this time agitate for the international community to turn its attention to Israel, the one entity in the region known to have an arsenal of them.

And trust me on this one, if there are extremists floating around in the Middle East, possessed of the Massadah Complex, you will find more of them in Tel Aviv than in Tehran.

Fawaz Turki is a veteran journalist, lecturer and author of several books including The Disinherited: Journal of Palestinian Exile. He lives in Washington D.C.