Whatever else the release of the 16-agency National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the Iranian bomb may be, it is certainly a reasonable measure of inside-the-Beltway Bush administration decline. Whether that release represented "a pre-emptive strike against the White House by intelligence agencies and military chiefs," an intelligence "mini-coup" against the administration, part of a longer-term set of moves meant to undermine plans for air strikes against Iran that involved a potential resignation threat from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and a "near mutiny" by the Joint Chiefs, or an attempt by the administration itself to "salvage negotiations with Iran" or shift its own Iran policy, or none of — or some combination of — the above, one thing can be said: Such an NIE would not have been written, no less released, at almost any previous moment in the last seven years. (Witness the 2005 version of the same that opted for an active Iranian program to produce nuclear weapons.)
Imagine an NIE back in 2005 that, as Dilip Hiro wrote recently, "contradicts the image of an inward-looking, irrational, theocratic leadership ruling Iran oppressively that Washington has been projecting for a long time. It says: ‘Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Teheran’s decisions are judged by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs.’"
The Iranians as rational, cost-benefit calculators? Only the near collapse of presidential and vice-presidential polling figures, and the endless policy failures that proceeded and accompanied those numbers; only the arrival of Robert Gates as secretary of defense and a representative of the "reality-based community," only the weakening of the neocons and their purge inside the Pentagon, only the increasing isolation of the Vice President’s "office"–only, that is, decline inside the Beltway–could account for such a conclusion or such a release.