Although the Bush White House tried to put the best face on it, there’s no getting around the fact that a national intelligence finding that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program four years ago and that it remains mothballed is a black eye for administration credibility and a blow to its hard line policy toward Iran.

At the very least it should cause the White House to tone down its belligerent rhetoric about a “military option” toward Iran. Indeed, in a backhanded way the finding concludes that the reason Iran froze its nuclear weapons program in 2003 — “primarily in response to international scrutiny and pressure” — was in a sense a victory for Bush’s diplomatic policy since the U.S. largely organized that pressure.

At a White House press conference called largely so the president could discuss the new national intelligence estimate, Bush insisted that Iran remains a nuclear threat because it now has the capacity to enrich uranium, a necessary prelude to building weapons, and because of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s bellicosity toward Israel.

Bush said he first saw the intelligence findings last week. But the administration knew last summer that the intelligence agencies had come into possession of information that cast extreme doubt on their 2005 finding of “high confidence” that Iran was developing nuclear weapons.

Yet in the meantime the Bush administration ratcheted up its rhetoric toward Iran. In August the president said Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons put the Mideast “under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust” and in October that ending its weapons program was vital “if you’re interested in avoiding World War III . . . ” Also in October Vice President Cheney direly warned that the world was prepared to impose “serious consequences” on Iran.

Asked if this sudden reversal was evidence of another intelligence failure, the president said that it was evidence his wholesale reform of the intelligence community had worked. And maybe it has.

Making the findings public must have been embarrassing to the White House, but it frees the president from the damaging charges during his first term that his administration cherry-picked and distorted intelligence to justify its policies and suppressed information that contradicted them.

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