July 6, 2009
Biden Suggests U.S. Not Standing in Israel’s Way on Iran
By BRIAN KNOWLTON
WASHINGTON — 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.
The Obama administration has said, and Mr. Biden reaffirmed this, that it remains open to negotiations with Tehran, even after the bitterly contested election that returned Mr. Ahmadinejad to the presidency.
“If the Iranians respond to the offer of engagement, we will engage,” Mr. Biden said. “The offer’s on the table.”
But separately, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned of the costs of any military strike against Iran.
“It could be very destabilizing, and it is the unintended consequences of that which aren’t predictable,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Still, he added, “I think it’s very important, as we deal with Iran, that we don’t take any options, including military options, off the table.”
Earlier in his interview with ABC, Mr. Biden had seemed sensitive to the risk of handing Mr. Ahmadinejad and the supreme Iranian leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, a propaganda edge by criticizing the elections too forcefully and allowing them to claim that “the reason why there was unrest is outside influence.”
He called Mr. Obama’s original condemnations, which some criticized as overly cautious, “absolutely pitch-perfect.”
If Mr. Biden’s comments on Israel and Iran were perhaps off the cuff, he did not back away from them when given a chance to do so.
George Stephanopoulos, the program’s host, asked: “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?”
And Mr. Biden replied: “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.”
The Israeli government has said that it hopes to see the Iranian nuclear program halted through diplomacy, but it has not ruled out a military strike. Talk of such a strike flared episodically during the Bush presidency.
Such a strike is considered highly problematic, both for the unpredictable shock waves it would send coursing through the region and because of the technical difficulty of destroying nuclear facilities that are scattered around Iran, some of them deep underground.
Still, the disputed Iranian election result has raised concerns in Israel. Officials there say that the victory by Mr. Ahmadinejad, who has called for the destruction of Israel, underscored the Iranian threat and bolstered the argument for tough action.
In May, Mr. Obama told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel during a meeting at the White House that “we’re not going to have talks forever” with Iran; in the absence of cooperation from Tehran, he said, the administration would not rule out “a range of steps.”