Last week's U.S. National Intelligence Estimate states, with "high confidence," that Iran quit trying to get a nuclear bomb in late 2003. That's exactly the opposite of what the NIE reported just two years ago, when it claimed Iran's ruling mullahs were still developing nuclear weapons.
The reaction here at home to the new NIE was a good deal clearer than the often mealy-mouthed wording of the report. By an overwhelming margin, according to a Rasmussen poll conducted after the new NIE report's findings were made public, Americans don't buy that Iran has quit trying to go nuclear.
They may be wiser than the intelligence minds who put together the new NIE. After all, oil-rich Iran continues to enrich uranium even though it doesn't need new sources of energy. This enriched uranium can be used as terrorist dirty bombs or diverted to nuclear weapons rather quickly.
So isn't it a lose-lose situation if Iran still could be working toward being able to develop a bomb while our own intelligence services have now assured the world that that's not the case?
Yes — but the full answer is more complex, because the world itself has changed since the 2005 NIE even more than the unreliable opinions of our intelligence services have.
Two years ago, the growing furor over the Iraqi war had created the conventional wisdom that Iran had come out the real "winner." Tehran's archenemy, Saddam Hussein, had been removed. And Iran was able to tie down the U.S. in Iraq through its Shi'ite terrorist proxies.
Meanwhile, with the U.S. busy in Iraq and the West split (former allies like France and Germany damned almost everything the U.S. did in the Middle East), Iran's ruling mullahs got a pass to cause more trouble in Gaza and Lebanon with subsidies to Hezbollah and Hamas.
But that was then.
With Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election as president of Iran in August 2005, the United States was given a public relations bonanza. We no longer had to warn the world that the largely silent mullahs in Iran were unstable and dangerous. Loud-mouthed Mr. Ahmadinejad did all that and more for us.
When he bragged that a mesmerized U.N. audience couldn't blink when he spoke, or that Israel should disappear from the map, the rest of the world on its own concluded that he was either outright crazy or scary — or both.
There are now pro-American governments in France and Germany. Both are terrified about Iran. That's understandable since both — unlike us — could soon very well be in range of Iran's newest North Korean-made missiles.
Meanwhile, Iran's other interests in the Middle East have taken a hit. Hezbollah is still clearing out the mess from the 2006 Lebanon war; that will cost its Iranian patron billions in war reconstruction aid. Israel has proved that it can take out Syrian weapons facilities with ease; its recent raid of a suspected nuclear plant won the quiet applause of almost everyone in the Middle East.
Iraq is quieting down. The country's Shi'ite majority in the democratic government is increasingly acting a little more like nationalists than lackeys of Iran.
And the entire Sunni Arab Middle East is lining up against Iran, scared stiff that its traditional rival may still go nuclear and shake them down for either tribute or cuts in oil production.
Internally, Iran gets worse each year. It spent billions on subsidies for terrorists and a pricey nuclear bomb plant that its people will now hear was shut down. And Iranians still can't figure out why gas is rationed when the country's oil earns $90 a barrel. If the government can't keep the public happy at record oil prices, what would it do should the market soften?
As the increasingly isolated Iranian economy tanks and the country becomes an international embarrassment, demonstrations against the government continue. At one last week at the University of Tehran, a sign blared out "Live free or die" — the motto of New Hampshire.
What are we to make of this mixed-up picture of Iran and its nuclear program?
With the new intelligence assessment, our allies got, and did not get, their wishes. There will probably be no American pre-emption against Iranian nuclear sites and, unfortunately, less American strong-arming for more sanctions on an Iran that seems to have been already reeling under the pressure.
But there will also be for our allies the growing nightmare that a sneaky Iran could now think it is free to race to the nuclear finish line — something that will endanger them far more than us.