The most important finding of the NIE isn't the details about the scope of nuclear research; there remains some disagreement about that. Rather, it's the insight into the greatest mystery of all about the Islamic republic, which is the degree of rationality and predictability of its decisions.Unfortunately there are still madmen involved - the neocons and Dick Cheney. And yes there are not only the madmen at the Weekly Standard but we are also dealing with madmen in the MSM like the Washington Post's Fred Hiatt who still thinks that bombing is better than diplomacy even while normally mad Robert Kagan has apparently taken a sanity pill and thinks it might be time to talk. Now nothing constructive is going to happen while Cheney is in power but we may be able to avoid anything destructive.
For the past several years, U.S. intelligence analysts have doubted hawkish U.S. and Israeli rhetoric that Iran is dominated by "mad mullahs" -- clerics whose fanatical religious views might lead to irrational decisions. In the new NIE, the analysts forcefully posit an alternative view of an Iran that is rational, susceptible to diplomatic pressure and, in that sense, can be "deterred."
"Tehran's decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs," states the NIE. Asked if this meant the Iranian regime would be "deterrable" if it did obtain a weapon, a senior official responded, "That is the implication." He added: "Diplomacy works. That's the message."
While the intelligence community regards Iran as a rational actor, the workings of the regime remain opaque -- a "black box," in the words of one senior official. "You see the outcome [in the fall 2003 decision to halt the covert program] but not the decision-making process." This official said it was "logical, but we don't have the evidence" that Iran felt less need for nuclear weapons after the United States toppled its mortal enemy, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, in April 2003.
The debate about what the NIE should mean for U.S. policy toward Iran is just beginning. But for the intelligence community, this rebuttal of conventional wisdom will restore some integrity after the Iraq WMD debacle. In challenging the previous certitudes about Iran and the Bomb, the NIE recalls the admonition many decades ago by the godfather of CIA analysts, Sherman Kent: "When the evidence seems to force a single and immediate conclusion, then that is the time to worry about one's bigotry, and to do a little conscientious introspection."
As long as the maddest of the mad reside in Washington nothing good will be accomplished. We can only hope to survive the next year.