Congressional Democrats have seized upon the latest National Intelligence Estimate - which says Iran stopped pursuing nuclear weapons in 2003 - with great relish. They suggest it proves that not only did the Bush administration exaggerate the threat of a nuclear Iran, but that the White House, in its drive for hard-line sanctions backed by military force, has been far too skeptical of diplomacy.
In a statement yesterday, Sen.Joseph Biden (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chastised President Bush, saying his "actions are doubly dangerous because they undercut the cooperation we need from other countries for dealing with the real problems Iran continues to pose."
But Biden and all those who echo his thinking are wrong. In reality, the NIE shows just how costly diplomacy can be when it isn't reinforced by strong sanctions and the credible threat of military force.
The NIE time line clearly describes the elaborate deception that occurred during the term of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, when Iran tried to build a nuclear bomb. It proves Iran was cheating even as well-meaning American diplomats believed promises that it was cooperating with the international community.
On Aug. 4, 1997, Khatami declared, "We are in favor of a dialogue between civilizations and a detente in our relations with the outside world." European diplomats, American academics and even Secretary of State Madeleine Albright applauded him. European statesmen opened palaces to him, and the Iranian president became the toast of Rome, Paris and London.
In fact, to encourage Khatami's promises of reform, the European Union nearly tripled its trade with Iran - and the Islamic Republic reaped a windfall. But rather than integrate itself into the family of nations, Khatami and the theocratic leadership he served invested the money in a covert quest for the bomb.
The NIE proves once and for all that all of Khatami's talk of dialogue and reform was little more than a smoke screen.
And let's not forget: Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Biden were the Iranian president's chief cheerleaders on Capitol Hill. They may have been well intentioned, but, by caring more about what the Iranian leadership said than what it actually did, they became useful idiots for the regime. Like their European counterparts, they trusted too much and verified too little.
International Atomic Energy Agency reports confirm the depth of Iranian subterfuge. While Iranian leaders said their program was for peaceful uses, in 2003 inspectors found traces of uranium metal, an element important in nuclear weapons development but not in a civilian energy program, in their centrifuges. A year later, the IAEA found Iran experimented with polonium-210, an element used to start the chain reaction leading to the detonation of a nuclear bomb.
Just last month, IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei revealed Iran had a blueprint for a nuclear warhead provided by disgraced Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan during a visit to Tehran in the 1990s.
It is this episode more than any other that effectively renders the latest NIE moot. Perhaps 16U.S. intelligence agencies now assert Iran cannot build a bomb until at least 2010. But they all assume Tehran's program is indigenous. That's a dangerous assumption, indeed. While Iranian minders usher the IAEA through the regime's declared facilities, the Revolutionary Guard could simply buy nuclear fuel or components from rogue scientists in Russia, Pakistan or Libya. The September 2007 revelation that North Korea likely supplied the Syrian government with a nuclear plant underlines this concern.
Yesterday, Bush declared, "The NIE doesn't do anything to change my opinion about the danger Iran poses to the world - quite the contrary." Other politicians should learn from their mistakes and not, as Biden and his colleagues now counsel, prepare to repeat them.