A week ago, the Americans were mad bombers. Now they are naive dupes. The Bush administration’s flip-flop over Iran’s nuclear programme has caused a somersault in the way America’s allies talk about US foreign policy in the Gulf.

The release of the latest US National Intelligence Assessment on Iran, with its jaw-dropping first sentence – “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons programme” – has come as a huge shock. It is now widely assumed that the Bush administration will not bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. It is also clear that it will become much harder to push through further UN sanctions against Iran. The Iranians, it seems, are off the hook.

This turn of events has inverted the usual stereotypes. The British and French – often typecast as appeasers of Iran – are furious with the Americans. They are convinced that the Iranians are still working on the bomb, even if they are not actively trying to “weaponise” their nuclear programme. Officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency – routinely accused by the Americans of being softies – now say that the US intelligence assessment is “generous”. The Gulf Arabs – who often complain about US belligerence – now worry aloud that America is planning to cut a deal with Iran. And the Iranian government is deeply grateful to America’s Central Intelligence Agency.

So what is going on? Fortuitously, I spent the weekend at a conference on security in the Gulf, organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Soldiers, diplomats, spooks and academics had flown into Bahrain from all over the world.

But the wisdom of the security crowd failed to come up with a single convincing explanation for recent events. Several theories were doing the rounds. Among the Americans and Europeans, the most popular explanation was that the US intelligence people were trying to do two things. First, to prove their independence; second, to stop a drive to war with Iran. A rival theory was that the spies had been naïve. They had failed to realise how their work would be spun by the media.

Neither of these ideas seemed popular among the Arab delegates. They find it difficult to believe that President George W. Bush could be deliberately undermined by part of his own government. They have a strong preference for conspiracy theories over cock-ups.

So their preferred explanation is that the US is intentionally being nice to Iran – perhaps as a reward for improved Iranian behaviour in Iraq. Alternatively, the Americans may already be talking to the Iranians and this is the first outward manifestation of their rapprochement.

Being of a western cast of mind, I incline to a mixture of theories one and two. This looks like a declaration of independence by America’s intelligence services, whose full ramifications for US policy may not have been completely understood.

So where does that leave us? Unless Iran does something really stupid, Mr Bush will not be able to bomb. Much tougher sanctions are also out. So that leaves talking.

That could be a very good thing. For years, those who have opposed the drive to war have urged America to strike a “grand bargain” with Iran. This would involve Iran forswearing nuclear weapons in a convincing and verifiable way and generally promising to behave better in the region. In return Iran would get full diplomatic recognition from the US, the lifting of sanctions (such as they are) and all manner of economic and technological benefits.

But there are two obvious snags. First, America’s intelligence re-assessment will probably be a boon to hardliners in Tehran. President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad will be able to say that Iran has stood firm and faced down the world. In such a climate, why should the Iranians make concessions?

Second, there may be no “grand bargain” to be had. Most of the evidence suggests that the determination to get a nuclear bomb is a national project in Iran – uniting different political factions. The Iranians are not necessarily in a hurry. They might be deterred for a while. But the nuclear programme has become a symbol of national machismo – and is also widely regarded as a strategic necessity, given that Iran is surrounded by hostile powers.

Iran also has ambitions in the region. It is the biggest country in the Gulf area – or, as the Iranians insist on calling it, the Persian Gulf area – and it wants its “natural role” to be recognised. If Iran is to be the regional hegemon, then the US military presence must be greatly diminished. The US army is in Iraq, the navy is in Bahrain, the air force is in Qatar. There is no way that the Americans are going to cede the dominant security role in the Gulf – a region that sits on top of 60 per cent of the world’s known oil reserves and 40 per cent of its natural gas.

That is the basic reason why a grand bargain will be so hard to achieve. The US and the Iranians are strategic rivals in the Gulf region. They are not going to become friends. The best that can be hoped for is an uneasy modus vivendi.

As for the Iranian nuclear programme: the message that the American public risks being left with is that it would be impossible to live with an Iranian bomb – but fortunately Iran is no longer pursuing nuclear weapons. The reality is the complete opposite. Iran probably will get nuclear weapons. And the west will probably have to learn to live with it.

gideon.rachman@ft.com

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