The just-released National Intelligence Estimate, which concludes that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, should lead to a change in the Bush Administration’s

dangerous and deluded policy of coercive diplomacy. But rather than using the NIE to announce a policy shift, an Administration stripped of credibility is still arguing the case for ratcheting up pressure on Tehran and for refusing to withdraw the threat of military force.

The NIE repudiates a 2005 estimate the White House has used to depict an Iran relentlessly working to develop nuclear weapons, and it’s a ringing vindication of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has argued for years that there’s no evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. If the new NIE, which incorporates the findings of sixteen intelligence agencies, represents the intelligence community’s resistance to the meddling of White House hardliners, it’s most welcome. It should certainly encourage stronger resistance to Administration saber rattling from the media and Congress members; too many of the latter–including leading Democrats–have accepted White House alarmism on Iran.

The findings also support those who argue that the Administration squandered a chance four years ago to strike a grand bargain that could have made Tehran a partner for regional stability. Iran’s decision to halt its nuclear weapons program, it appears, came on the heels of a May 2003 diplomatic overture to Washington. That feeler outlined Iran’s willingness to end support for anti-Israeli militants like Hamas and Hezbollah, take action against Al Qaeda and accept the Saudi initiative on the Israel-Palestine conflict in return for an end to US sanctions and hostile behavior against Iran. In what may eventually be recognized as one of America’s greatest foreign policy blunders, besides the invasion of Iraq, the White House spurned Tehran’s offer, which has only strengthened Iran’s position in the region while bolstering its hardliners.

The Administration is making a similarly grave mistake by ignoring the implications of this newest NIE. It will be very difficult for other members of the UN Security Council, especially Russia and China, to support new sanctions. It will also be difficult for them to continue to buy into Washington’s conditions for serious negotiations with Iran–namely that Tehran freeze all enrichment activity.

The world should be relieved that the NIE findings make a US military strike less likely. The Administration’s approach should not be more coercive diplomacy; it should be negotiations with-

out preconditions, aimed at establishing a broader dialogue.

Coercive diplomacy has been a failure because it seeks to deny Iran uranium enrichment for civilian purposes, which it has a right to under the Nonproliferation Treaty, and because it has not given Tehran incentives for negotiation, other than a possible removal of sanctions. The goal of negotiations should not be denial of enrichment but a sufficiently intrusive inspections process to ensure that Iran does not switch its civilian program to a military one. In addition, the Administration and its EU negotiating partners need to add some carrots to future negotiations: an end to sanctions, normalization of relations, increased trade and a greater role for Iran in regional security.

Engaging Iran in this manner is the best way to constrain its nuclear ambitions–and a good model for how to halt proliferation in general, perhaps the greatest danger of the new nuclear era, as Jonathan Schell argues in this issue. It is also the best way to open Iran to international influence and thus offer hope to the country’s many reformers, who want better relations with the United States.