Just as the drums of war were beating into a steady "Shock and Awe" rhythm, out comes a hazy smoke signal.
The report by US intelligence agencies (the NIE) that Iran has not been pursuing a nuclear weapons development program for the past four years is enough for Dick Cheney to feel a tightness in his chest.
After the NIE, Dr Strangelove needs a new script. The White House has a habit of blaming and accusing Iran. Now its own intelligence services are stating clearly: "We do not know whether [Iran] currently intends to develop nuclear weapons." That contradicts the assessment two years ago that boldly stated that Tehran was "determined to develop nuclear weapons".
There is a power play in Washington where the Democrat Congress does not make matters better. Even if the Democrats really mean that they will not give President George W. Bush blank cheques over Iraq, next year is an election year where criticism of Iran will become shriller. Not a single contender, Republican or Democrat, has spoken out against a strike on Iran. Up until now, the scenario had been playing to script. An "October surprise" (which in reality could came anytime after March), according to White House strategy, would give Republicans a "cause célèbre" on Iran, leave the Democrats exposed, and deliver the South and its electoral college votes to the GOP.
There was even a name for the conflict, Tirannt.
Tirannt (Theatre Iran Near Term) is based on the overwhelming use of conventional strikes, reminiscent of "Shock and Awe" used in Iraq in March 2003.
Washington war planners believe that nuclear weapons do not have to be used to destroy Iranian nuclear sites buried deep underground.
Now the disclosure by the NIE makes it harder for Bush to justify a military strike against Iran before he leaves office next year. And just how will Washington persuade Moscow and Beijing to toe an even-more strident line on Tehran? Bush and Cheney have been claiming without equivocation that Tehran is bent on achieving a nuclear weapon, with the president even warning in October in a gee-aw-shucks kind of way, of the risk of a third world war (right out of Strangelove).
James Baker accurately stated that everything in the Middle East was inter-related but that does not mean it is any less opaque. Iraq was never just about Iraq. Apart from oil it was about containing Iran, just as the attack on southern Lebanon by Israel in 2006 was never just about kidnapped soldiers or teaching Hezbollah a lesson. It was a dress rehearsal to see how much damage some of the 500 "bunker-busting" bombs delivered by the Pentagon in 2004 would inflict on Hezbollah hideouts and to use that information in relation to an attack on Iran.
The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammad Al Baradei, has repeatedly said his inspectors have found nothing to support American and Israeli claims that Iran is building a nuclear weapon. Israel on the other hand has nuclear weapons, about 300 of them, but who's counting? Certainly no one in Washington.
Iran claims that it has an "inalienable right" under the terms of the Non Proliferation Treaty to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. In actual fact, it does not. It is allowed to do it under the treaty but being allowed is not the same as having a right. What we are witnessing is a struggle between the bombastic and crude Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and relative moderates to gain power not just office in Tehran.
Attack Iran? Surely not. Even Bush must realise that he is in such a mess in Iraq that to attack Iran would be a supreme act of folly, arrogance and sheer stupidity. It is, but it depends how you sell it.
In 1953, when the CIA and MI6 dispatched the democratic government of Mohammad Mossadeq, a nationalist who believed that Iranian oil belonged to Iran, that belief sealed his fate. It doesn't stop there. When the Shah fell to a brutal revolution, the West needed a policeman in the Gulf, someone they could depend on to carry the big stick. Enter Saddam Hussein.
That "policeman" invaded Iran in 1980 with the nod-nod-wink-wink sign of approval from Washington and London. His broken body dangled from a gallows 26 years later, captured on grainy cell-phone images. When it comes to recognising Iran's sovereignty, the West has, shall we say, a mixed record.
If an attack is sold over weapons of mass destruction then, especially now, it will be laughed out of the beltway. If it is sold as protection for Israel then the only issue in doubt is timing. After the NIE findings, the White House will be championing Israel's security even more often.