What the recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear ambitions truly indicates is that President Bush's loose talk about World War III is decidedly premature. If anybody's going to launch a war against Iran before the end of the Bush administration, it will be Israel - not the United States.
Despite the NIE's findings, it's clear that Iran's reach for the bomb is both real and calculated. That it is real is proven by two facts: (1) Tehran's aggressive development of a uranium enrichment process that's unnecessary given its arrangements with partner Russia and (2) its ongoing construction of a heavy-water research facility that's likewise unwarranted for civilian nuclear power.
Tehran's calculations are indicated by the NIE finding that Iran ceased its nuclear weapons program in 2003, meaning that the regime purposely chose not to take the final - and easiest - step toward developing a deliverable nuclear device.
To grow its own military nuclear capability, a state must: (1) generate weapons-grade material, (2) weaponize that material in a nuclear device and (3) be able to deliver that device to a target, typically by attaching a warhead to a missile. Iran has accomplished enough on the first task to warrant global concern and has long possessed significant missile capabilities.
What the NIE said is that Iran decided to discontinue its weaponization program four years ago. In effect, Iran stockpiles gunpowder and guns but no bullets - for now.
So when Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, threatens to wipe Israel "off the map," it's like the village idiot waving an unloaded pistol, making crazy threats - especially given Israel's significant nuclear arsenal.
How dangerous is this blustering fool? That depends on how fast he can get some bullets.
Making the "gunpowder" (enriched material) is a huge industrial undertaking and fielding the "gun" (missiles) is complex, but constructing the "bullets" (detonation devices) is not that hard. When experts say it's easy to build a nuclear bomb, that's what they mean.
The recent NIE basically reiterates the intelligence community's 2005 opinion that Iran would need several years to develop an A-to-Z capability. Right now, that suggests a window between 2010 and 2015. If Iran continues enriching uranium, that window could get much shorter because - again - weaponizing is relatively simple.
We seemingly face conflicting signals: The supreme leader curtails Iran's weapons program soon after the U.S. invades Iraq but subsequently ramps up the enrichment effort while letting Ahmadinejad shoot off his mouth.
The Khamenei regime stakes out a daring position: Speak loudly and keep - within ready reach - a big enough stick. By doing so, Iran effectively triangulates among the following: Japan, which could have nuclear weapons within months, if desired; Israel, which has long signaled a willingness to pull the nuclear trigger to ensure its survival; and Libya, which abandoned its entire program when the U.S. threatened invasion.
It's a clever call: going just far enough to be considered a near-nuclear power but refusing to go all the way, fearing the resulting dangers.
In retrospect, the Bush administration blew it by refusing to acknowledge Iran's strategic goal: Tehran wants assurances that America will not engage in violent regime change and seeks to deter that possibility. If the U.S. had offered such assurances at the right moment following Saddam Hussein's collapse, there's reason to believe we could have navigated better outcomes there, as well as in Afghanistan and Lebanon.
Instead, we've suffered - and continue to suffer - Iran's opportunistic meddling across the region at the cost of American lives.
Negotiating with the mullahs doesn't mean they'd simply give us what we want. It means we'd get some of what we - and Israel - want, but we'd likewise need to give Tehran some of what it wants - significant regional influence.
What is the alternative?
Iran achieves the same rough level of regional influence, albeit through violence manufactured to veto America's efforts at stabilizing several ongoing regional crises.
How to engage such a confident enemy?
How did the United States pull off such a mix of engagement and containment with Leonid Brezhnev's super-confident U.S.S.R. in the early 1970s? Look what that got us a generation later.
If the NIE tells us anything, it's that we need to ditch the Bush administration's currently hysterical tone on Iran. Ahmadinejad is no Hitler, and the mullahs are not irrational nut cases.
This is a clever, calculating crew. When we underestimate their intelligence, we only damage our own strategic interests.