July 05, 2009

Biden on Israel/Iran

Via the NYT this Sunday:

Plunging squarely into one of the most sensitive issues in the Middle East, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. suggested on Sunday that the United States would not stand in the way of Israeli military action aimed at the Iranian nuclear program.

The United States, Mr. Biden said in an interview broadcast on ABC’s “This Week,” “cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do.”

"Israel can determine for itself — it’s a sovereign nation — what’s in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else," he said, in an interview taped in Baghdad at the end of a visit there.

The remarks went beyond at least the spirit of any public utterances by President Barack Obama, who has said that diplomatic efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program should be given to the end of the year. But the president has also said that he is “not reconciled” to the possibility of Iran possessing a nuclear weapon — a goal Tehran denies.

Mr. Biden’s comments came at a particularly sensitive time, amid the continuing tumult over the disputed Iranian elections, and seemed to risk handing a besieged President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a new tool with which to fan nationalist sentiments in Iran.

What was not immediately clear was whether Mr. Biden, who has a long-standing reputation for speaking volubly — and sometimes going too far in the heat of the moment — was sending an officially sanctioned message.

Brian Knowlton's somewhat amusing description of Mr. Biden apart, what do readers make of the Vice-President's comments, in particular, whether they were deliberative and pre-vetted, or instead, non-coached and instinctive, perhaps cause for some wincing inside the Beltway today? Meantime, a related and not uninteresting piece in Haaretz.

Permit me a brief personal vignette. On a flight a year or so back, I bumped into a former Cabinet member from a previous Administration (he will remain nameless, and I won't even mention his exact post or what Administration he served, suffice it to say a prominent man quite well known still). Discussing Iran briefly, he looked at me with his shrewd eyes and said (relying on memory and so probably slighly paraphrasing): "Perhaps we'll let the Israelis do it". The comment was revealing I thought for a couple reasons: 1) the notion that somehow we would 'authorize' the Israelis, as if they were our proxy to so delegate out the mission; and 2) perhaps less surprising, the fact he thought an extensive bombing campaign of Iran not a bad idea, essentially apparently just a dusting off of the Osirak precedent, I thought without sufficiently appreciating that this operation would be materially more challenging several times over, for many reasons, to include two hot wars on both sides of Iran with hundreds of thousands of American soldiers in the neighborhood.

This little anecdote leads me to a further thought, I think Biden was essentially just trying to refute "1" above, e.g. the sense that it's up to us, thus stressing Israel is a sovereign state that makes up her own mind about such things, so that perhaps he was purposefully distancing the U.S. some from a possible Israeli action, whether in scripted or unscripted manner I'm not sure (I'd probably guess the latter). Of course, how the region and world interpret his comments could be as more of a flashing greenish light, even if that wasn't the intent. Of course too, no one in the region would believe--even were it true (which would be highly unlikely)--that an Israeli action didn't enjoy tacit American support/approval, a variable that we should keep uppermost in our minds (among others) when dealing with the Israelis on this issue/dossier going forward.

MORE: See Aluf Benn on this too, who sees this as more of a purposeful warning to the Iranians.

Posted by Gregory at July 5, 2009 08:29 PM

I watched the whole interview with Vice President Biden, and came away with the impression that he was saying the Israelis have their interests, and we have ours. He wasn't giving a "green light" to anyone for anything. Neither did he appear to be warning Tehran of anything; if such were his intention, his message would have been undercut immediately by Admiral Mullen's interview on (I believe) CNN the same weekend.

Biden got questions from ABC's George Stephanopolous worded to elicit a clear statement about what America would do in the event of an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, and the Times reporter seems to have picked up his tone from Stephanopolous more than from Biden. I did wonder during the interview if the public hard line taken by the Obama admininstration against Israel on the settlements issue is prompting some admininstration officials to avoid the impression that they are blocking Israel on other issues as well.

Posted by: Zathras at July 6, 2009 12:24 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

A statement by Biden does have a presumption of gaffe attached to it. But I don't think he was off message here -- he was conveying a pretty clear "talk with us, or the Isrealis might get ya'" message. But, since it is Biden, there is a certain plausible deniability for Obama, if he needs it.

Here is the relevent transcript:

BIDEN: If the Iranians seek to engage, we will engage.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And meanwhile, the clock is ticking...

BIDEN: If the Iranians respond to the offer of engagement, we will engage.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But the offer is on the table?

BIDEN: The offer's on the table.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it pretty clear that he agreed with President Obama to give until the end of the year for this whole process of engagement to work. After that, he's prepared to make matters into his own hands.

Is that the right approach?

BIDEN: Look, Israel can determine for itself -- it's a sovereign nation -- what's in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Whether we agree or not?

BIDEN: Whether we agree or not. They're entitled to do that. Any sovereign nation is entitled to do that. But there is no pressure from any nation that's going to alter our behavior as to how to proceed.

What we believe is in the national interest of the United States, which we, coincidentally, believe is also in the interest of Israel and the whole world. And so there are separate issues.

If the Netanyahu government decides to take a course of action different than the one being pursued now, that is their sovereign right to do that. That is not our choice.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But just to be clear here, if the Israelis decide Iran is an existential threat, they have to take out the nuclear program, militarily the United States will not stand in the way?

BIDEN: Look, we cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do when they make a determination, if they make a determination that they're existentially threatened and their survival is threatened by another country.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You say we can't dictate, but we can, if we choose to, deny over-flight rights here in Iraq. We can stand in the way of a military strike.

BIDEN: I'm not going to speculate, George, on those issues, other than to say Israel has a right to determine what's in its interests, and we have a right and we will determine what's in our interests.

Posted by: Appalled Moderate at July 6, 2009 09:26 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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