The partisan furor erupting over the selective release of two pages from this year’s National Intelligence Estimate report aside, it raises a lot more questions than it answers.

The first question that comes to mind is why? The White House is allegedly “incensed” that those particular pages were declassified and released, and it might even be true.

Or it might not.

Let’s look at both arguments. Leaking the NIE report handed all the cards over to Iran, seemingly emasculating the administration’s entire Iran foreign policy. The National Intelligence Estimate is highly classified information – for any of the 16 intelligence agencies to leak it is tantamount to treason.

For it to be freely released to the public seems inexplicable.

For four years, the Bush administration has been building a case against Iran’s nuclear program. Two years ago, the NIE reported “with high confidence” Iran was moving full steam ahead with a nuclear weapons program. It estimated Iran was only a matter of a few years, if not months, before it would pass the nuclear point of no return.

The leaked portion of this year’s NIE says the consensus opinion of the nation’s intelligence community is that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003. However, while it has “high confidence” the program was suspended in 2003, it also concluded with “medium to high confidence” that Iran is keeping its nuclear weapons development options open.

The left immediately seized on the revised NIE assessment to attack the president’s credibility, drawing the inevitable connections between the failed Iraq intel in 2003 and the NIE’s abrupt turnaround in 2007.

Notwithstanding the fact that the NIE’s assessment is what the president was relying on in the first place (making attacks on his personal credibility ludicrous), the partisan opportunism in Washington virtually hands Tehran a blank check from henceforth.

There is no way short of a Iranian nuclear test that Bush will be able to rebuild domestic or international support for additional sanctions (or especially military strikes) against Iran in months remaining in his presidency.

For all intents and purposes, the U.S. lost the war against Iran’s nuclear program 10 seconds after the NIE summary hit the front page of the New York Times. There is no point in wasting ammunition.

So in this view, the NIE leak was very, very bad news for the administration and worse news for Israel, in that it seems to inoculate Tehran against further Western interference in its domestic nuclear program.

On the other hand, it seems illogical for the White House to be taking its release so calmly. It undid four long years of U.S. foreign policy in an instant. To leak it would be tantamount to treason. Deliberately declassifying it suggests government incompetence that has reached dizzying new heights – a possibility I don’t lightly discount.

But it is the Bush administration’s National Intelligence Estimate. Declassifying secret intelligence summaries is a White House prerogative. And its release did torpedo U.S./Iran foreign policy.

So what is it doing on the front page?

There is but one alternative explanation. Either some kind of a U.S. deal with Iran has already been struck, or one is so close that maintaining the coalition is no longer deemed necessary.

What kind of deal? Virtually any kind of deal with Iran is in Washington’s interests. Until the fall of the shah, Iran was America’s chief ally in the Middle East. American geopolitical strategy is always aimed at preventing the rise of a regional or continental power bloc that can threaten the U.S. or Europe.

In the Islamic Middle East, Sunni outnumber Shia many times over. Iran is predominately Shia. Arabs outnumber Persians in similar numbers. Arabs and Persians have historical animosities stretching back millennia to days of Xerxes and the Persian Empire. In terms of U.S. geopolitical strategy, Iran is the spoiler.

As a consequence of U.S. long-term strategy and Persia’s unique circumstances, America and Iran are natural allies. And an alliance with Tehran would go a long way toward containing Hugo Chavez while keeping Venezuela’s oil pipelines open.

Iran’s current relationship with Russia is forced and unnatural. The last nation to occupy Iran was Russia, and the Persians have a long memory and an outstanding score to settle.

Iran’s youthful majority doesn’t trust the Americans, but they don’t like the Russians, either. Given the choice between the two cultures, however, all the polls indicate they’d dump the Kremlin in a heartbeat.

Something is clearly about to break, and the NIE is but one indication among many.

The Saudis have recently done an about-face and concluded, over U.S. objections, a major arms deal with the Russians. The Saudis are Sunni, Iran’s natural and religious enemies, and the Saudis also fear being dumped by Washington in favor of a deal with Iran.

The Arabs tend to get worried whenever the Americans or the Iranians rattle sabers in their direction. The prospect of a deal between Iran and the United States is enough to send them scurrying for their prayer mats.

Clearly, a deal between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran seems absurd on its face, and maybe it is. But no less absurd than the prospect that the White House has deliberately sabotaged its own foreign policy agenda during the final months of the Bush presidency.

Whether there is a deal in the works or whether the Bush administration has surpassed its own high standard for intelligence-processing incompetence remains to be seen.

But there is more here than meets the eye, and you can bet that they are burning the midnight oil in Riyadh, Moscow and, especially, Jerusalem, trying to figure out what. Meanwhile, keep an eye on what the prophet Ezekiel predicted about this region. It is more illuminating than the New York Times, or any other media right now.

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