That approach led to stories that challenged some of the administration’s basic assumptions. The stories didn’t claim that Iran had no nuclear-weapons program or that its intentions were peaceful. Instead, McClatchy’s reporters focused on the lack of evidence and the ambiguities. As one of their headlines put it, NO FIRM EVIDENCE OF IRANIAN NUCLEAR WEAPONS. Another story flagged recent feelers from Iran, suggesting it might be willing to make a deal to suspend uranium enrichment. Yet another piece surveyed Iran experts and found a broad swath of agreement that, despite the rhetoric that a nuclear weapon would represent an “existential threat” to Israel, Tehran appeared to want a nuclear capability for “the same reason other countries do: to protect itself.”

All of which would have been unremarkable, were it not for the overwhelming chatter in the other direction. “There’s no doubt that [Iran is] moving forward with the acquisition of a nuclear weapon,” McCain said last fall, a few minutes after he jokingly sang, “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” to a Beach Boys melody. Such talk wasn’t limited to conservatives. Hillary Clinton tried to outflank the administration, asserting in January 2006, “Iran is seeking nuclear weapons” and arguing that the White House actually “chose to downplay the threats.” In April 2006, Joe Klein, Time’s centrist columnist, argued on ABC’s This Week, “We should not take any option, including the use of tactical nuclear weapons, off the table.” (McClatchy’s reporters have rarely been invited to join the discussion. “No one comes to us,” says national-security reporter Jonathan Landay. “I did CSPAN once.”)

The main fear of course has been that a nuclear-armed Iran might attack Israel. (As President Bush presented it last October, a nuclear-armed Iran could result in “World War III.”) The underlying assumption is what might be called the crazy-mullah model: Iran’s leaders are so twisted by religious fervor that even the likelihood of their own destruction, from Israel’s nuclear arsenal, wouldn’t dissuade them from an attack. As Bernard Lewis, the hawkish Princeton academic, put it last year, “Mutual Assured Destruction is not a deterrent; it is an inducement.”

Ahmadinejad has certainly encouraged this kind of thinking, as has, indirectly, the coverage of him. Ahmadinejad has a penchant for demagogic rants. He infamously questioned whether the Holocaust happened and, to international outrage, said in 2005, “The regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.” He makes for good copy—when he spoke at Columbia University last fall, CNN ran forty-five minutes of live coverage. Still, decision-making power on national security and foreign policy lies not with Ahmadinejad, but with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the clerics around him.

For all the rhetoric emanating from both Tehran and the U.S., Iran’s history since the 1979 revolution contains little evidence suggesting the country’s leaders would launch what would amount to a suicidal attack. One rare voice to question the doomsday scenario has been Newsweek’s international editor, Fareed Zakaria. His conclusion, as he wrote last October: “The American discussion about Iran has lost all connection to reality.”

“The question about Iran’s rationality rests on this: They’ve been in power for thirty years. What have they done?” Zakaria noted on PBS’s NewsHour. “The idea that they are not going to be deterred by Israel’s two hundred nuclear weapons, including a second-strike capacity on submarines, is just fantasy. It’s based on plucking a few quotes here and there from a president who is not constitutionally or operationally in charge of the nuclear program.”

That jibes with the second half of the big news from December’s NIE—not that Iran had stopped its march for nukes but why: Iran’s leaders are “guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon.” In other words, perhaps Iran’s leaders aren’t so crazy after all. Maybe that shouldn’t have been such a surprise. 

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Eric Umansky is an assistant managing editor of ProPublica.