Here are some segments from the National Intelligence Estimate, November 2007 - Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities
This Estimate does assume that the strategic goals and basic structure of Iran’s senior leadership and government will remain similar to those that have endured since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. We acknowledge the potential for these to change during the time frame of the Estimate, but are unable to confidently predict such changes or their implications. This Estimate does not assess how Iran may conduct future negotiations with the West on the nuclear issue.
Regime change is not discussed in the report except indirectly here, where for the purposes of this report, it is assumed that the current regime or one like it will remain in power for the ten year term being projected. The consensus from what I'm reading is that the US foreign policy community is not confident in the chances of a pro-US regime change. I'd say there is good reason for that.
1 For the purposes of this Estimate, by “nuclear weapons program” we mean Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.
The fireworks start with the first footnote. This is the departure not only from previous NIEs concerning Iran, but from the entirety of previous US policy. The idea that Iran's civil work related to conversion and enrichment is not part of a "nuclear weapons program" is contrary to every public statement the US has made on this issue until this point.
D. Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so. For example, Iran’s civilian uranium enrichment program is continuing. We also assess with high confidence that since fall 2003, Iran has been conducting research and development projects with commercial and conventional military applications—some of which would also be of limited use for nuclear weapons.
Again, this seems like an intelligence report from some country other than the United States. The same information in 2005, or earlier this year if spoken about by any member of the Administration instead of "limited use", would be described as useful only for weapons.
Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs. This, in turn, suggests that some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might—if perceived by Iran’s leaders as credible—prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program. It is difficult to specify what such a combination might be.
Pressure on Iran to continue what it is doing now - which according to new US policy, is a "current halt to its weapons program" - should be the object of diplomatic policies of pressure. There is no call for pressure on Iran to reverse its current policy and stop enrichment. The producers of this report seem comfortable with Iranian civil enrichment.
We assess with moderate confidence that convincing the Iranian leadership to forgo the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult given the linkage many within the leadership probably see between nuclear weapons development and Iran’s key national security and foreign policy objectives, and given Iran’s considerable effort from at least the late 1980s to 2003 to develop such weapons. In our judgment, only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weapons—and such a decision is inherently reversible.
This is the part that says an attack would not work to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. That an attack would not work is clearly the conventional Washington wisdom at this point. The overarching point of the NIE, it seems, is that threats to attack also do not work. Another point seems to be that the policy of attempting to force Iran to abandon fuel cycle technologies also will not work.
H. We assess with high confidence that Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so.
Iran is, in the long term, nuclear capable. This is a substantial step-down from the US position this summer. Obviously something has been churning in the background. It is not clear what it means. We'll learn more from future statements.
I note that this report is a repudiation of Israel's policy that no other Middle East country can be nuclear capable. US and Israel's policy on that matter are no longer aligned because while preventing Iran from being nuclear capable is important for Israel, the US is accepting that it just does not have the resources to prevent nuclear capability from spreading.
It is possible that this report does not reflect solidly held views in the White House, that this report is a feeler but not a commitment to accept Iran's nuclear program basically as it is now. But the willingness to publish views so far at odds with previous policy is in itself a departure from previous policy.
I think it is possible, but much less likely, that this is the result of a mutiny in the White House, with George Bush somehow unwillingly maneuvered into a position where he had to allow a report to be published that implies policy positions contrary to those he holds.
If neither of the two above situations is in place, then this report marks at least the potential for a major transformation of US policy towards Iran.