The estimate has faced criticism from hawks, and some GOP senators have even called for a congressional commission to investigate its conclusions and the intelligence that went into it.
Neoconservatives like Michael Ledeen, one of the early champions of the action against Iraq, and Norman Podhoretz, an adviser to Republican presidential contender Rudolph Giuliani, have panned the estimate's accuracy, charging that the publication of its key judgments amounts to political sabotage of the Bush administration by the intelligence agencies.
Podhoretz, former editor of Commentary magazine and a leading advocate of attacking Iran, now wrote, "The intelligence community, which has for some years now been leaking material calculated to undermine George W. Bush, is doing it again. This time the purpose is to head off the possibility that the president may order airstrikes on the Iranian nuclear installations."
John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in the Washington Post, "Too much of the intelligence community is engaging in policy formulation rather than 'intelligence' analysis."
But if the debacle over the Bush administration's pre-war claims about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs -- and their relatively uncritical acceptance by the news media -- has taught us anything, it is that words matter and that nuance is important: Not everything is black and white.
Inevitably there is ambiguity in the area of international relations, especially concerning secretive efforts to develop nuclear capacity. When talking about issues that could serve as a casus belli, clarity of thought is critical. There is no room for bombast and cliches.
But alas, on Iran, as we saw in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, there have been examples of notable inaccuracies, if not deliberate misrepresentations, of the intelligence on Iran's nuclear program.
One notable example was a report in fall 2006 by the House Intelligence Committee. The report, "Recognizing Iran as a Strategic Threat: An Intelligence Challenge for the United States," was written by Frederick Fleitz, a former CIA officer and John Bolton's former chief of staff at the State Department.
The report was so bad that U.N. inspectors investigating Iran's nuclear program sent a letter to the Bush administration and to the committee chairman in protest.
The letter called parts of the document "outrageous and dishonest" and offered evidence to refute its central claims.
Among the allegations in the report is that IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei removed a senior inspector from the Iran investigation because he raised "concerns about Iranian deception regarding its nuclear program." The IAEA said the inspector has not been removed.
Those hawks advocating an attack on Iran seem to want to have their cake and eat it too. They have criticized the CIA for its deficiency pre-Iraq war and for its inability to gather enough intelligence on the Iranian nuclear program -- while at the same time claiming that the intelligence is good enough to make destroying Iran's nuclear program with precision strikes possible.
And, in an echo of pre-war Iraq misinformation, some officials at the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the State Department have said they are concerned that the office of Vice President Dick Cheney may be receiving a stream of questionable information that originates with Iranian exiles, including a discredited arms dealer, Manucher Ghorbanifar, who played a role in the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal.
There is even a new Iran directorate inside the Pentagon featuring some of the same people involved in the Iraqi intelligence cherry-picking operation at the Office of Special Plans. These include Abram Shulsky and two former OSP staffers, John Trigilio and Ladan Archin. It is feared that their office has become a conduit for Ghorbanifar, who the CIA deemed a fabricator as far back as 1984.
It bears remembering that despite all the pronouncements by the Bush administration on Iran's nuclear program that it simply doesn't have much in the way of good intelligence. U.S. intelligence presence on the ground in Iran is, at best, limited. Thus, most intelligence on Iran comes from the IAEA, or from so-called foreign liaison services -- the intelligence agencies of U.S. allies.
Some reports have suggested that the key piece of intelligence that resulted in the NIE's conclusions that Tehran had halted its program came from a liaison service.
Certainly, some members of Congress simply don't trust the Bush administration when it comes to intelligence on Iran.
In fact, worried that the White House may attempt to manipulate the intelligence process again, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada last June proposed the Iran Intelligence Oversight Act, legislation meant to ensure that each of the administration's claims on Iran would be backed up by the consensus assessments of intelligence analysts.
It is not just members of Congress worrying about the Bush administration. Even parts of the establishment elite have called for more talks with Iran. Aside from the calls for such in recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, there have been others, such as a 2004 working group established under the Council on Foreign Relations and co-chaired by Robert Gates, now secretary of defense, and former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski; and a 2001 Atlantic Council of the United States Working Group, co-chaired by Lee H. Hamilton, James Schlesinger and Brent Scowcroft.
(Third of six parts. In Part 4, Thursday: the anatomy of an attack.)
(David Isenberg is a U.S. Navy veteran and a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy. He is an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, a contributor to the Straus Military Reform Project, a research fellow at the Independent Institute, and a correspondent for Asia Times.)