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No change in Iran policy, White House insists

No change in Iran policy, White House insists

As White House and Office of the Vice President aides formed a united front against widespread media speculation about a change in policy signaled by Vice President Joseph Biden‘s statement on a Sunday news show that Israel is a “sovereign nation” that could “determine for itself” how to deal with threats from Iran, analysts said that Israel may be wary of any such green light in any case.

In e-mails and phone calls today, administration officials insisted that Biden’s comments were neither a signal of any change in policy, nor any sort of freelancing. Asked if Biden’s remarks might have been part of an intentional messaging campaign to step up pressure on Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program, officials gave an emphatic “no.” But for all that, the remarks were widely seen both in Washington and abroad as a message intended less for Jerusalem than for Tehran.

Israel’s “biggest nightmare” is that one day the U.S. government “‘would call it and say ‘OK guys, take care of it,'” said Tel Aviv University Iran expert David Menashri in a call Monday arranged by the Israeli Policy Forum, a U.S. nonprofit organization that supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was right to give Obama until the end of the year to see if engagement with Iran was succeeding before taking matters into his own hands, Biden said, “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.” Repeated follow-up questions from Stephanopoulos elicited similar responses.

“Some in the [Israeli] media are portraying [Biden’s comments] as a 180-degree switch and as an indication that the administration is beginning to realize that ‘engagement’ may not work,” said former Israeli Consul General to the United Nations Alon Pinkas. “That it is absolutely NOT a change, and if anything, it should be interpreted as a bad sign rather than a positive encouragement.”

Biden’s message “is the absolute worst-case scenario from Israel’s policy-planning perspective,” Pinkas elaborated. “‘We will not prevent’ means the U.S. will neither support nor encourage [Israeli attacks on Iran] or in other words, ‘Do what you think is appropriate, but bear the consequences.'”

Although Israeli officials have expressed unending skepticism about the Obama administration’s intentions to try to engage with Iran, and are often seen as chafing against Washington, Israel has conducted an intensive campaign over the past several years to make Iran’s nuclear program an international rather than just an Israeli problem.

The reason, explains Georgetown University’s Daniel Byman, is that Israel doesn’t want to take on Iran by itself. “Militarily, this is a difficult operation,” Byman said Monday, noting that Iran’s nuclear program is widely dispersed, compared with Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, which Israel struck in 1981. “This is much farther geographically, and that means planes can’t loiter as long. They would [presumably] be flying over air space [in Iraq] controlled by the United States. You have to put together a strike package that’s much more difficult. It also requires superb intelligence that may be lacking.”

“There was no intention to change the position, and nothing the vice president said in any way indicates a change in U.S. position,” said a White House official of Biden’s remarks Sunday. “What he said and what [chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael] Mullen said taken together reflect our position: Israel is a sovereign nation, Israel is an ally and Israel has a right to defend itself and other countries cannot dictate how it defends itself. That being said, it would not be helpful if Israel were to act against Iran.” Any interpretation that Biden’s remarks signaled a change in U.S. policy is “spin,” he added.

Biden did, however, strike a different tone when answering a similar question back on April 7. Asked if he were concerned that Netanyahu might strike Iranian nuclear facilities, Biden told CNN: “I don’t believe Prime Minister Netanyahu would do that. I think he would be ill advised to do that.”

How to account for the seeming discrepancy? “Any tonal difference is not intentional at all,” the White House official said.

Did Biden coordinate with the White House to pressure Iran to respond to the still-outstanding offer of talks with Washington? Again, the answer from the White House was no.

Washington foreign-policy hands, however, were skeptical that the message was not quite deliberate.

“It’s crazy to think the principal audience of this comment was in Jerusalem and not in Tehran,” said Jon Alterman, director of Middle East Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I think the principal goal … is to diminish the comfort level that people in the Iranian leadership may have that their actions don’t have consequences.” 

Deliberate or not, Biden’s comments could increase the uncertainty in Tehran about U.S. intentions. “When the Iranians are confident the U.S. is going to sit on the Israelis, that creates one set of plans,” Alterman continued. “And when they can’t be sure of that,” that creates another.

Pinkas, the former Israeli diplomat, agreed that Biden’s intended audience may have been Iran. “There is a case to be made for the U.S. to pressure Iran through an implicit Israeli pending attack,” he said.

The vice president is not trying to rattle sabers through Israel, one Washington foreign-policy hand said on condition of anonymity. “But if Iran feels further isolated, it’s a not unwelcome result,” of what Biden said, he added.

“There may be something to the effect that the White House planned Biden’s comments on Iran yesterday, to keep the Iranians off balance and honest,” one Hill foreign-policy aide said Monday. “What I found interesting was the juxtaposition of Biden’s comments with those of Admiral Mullen, who continue to take the cautious perspective of the U.S. military that any preemptive strike would be destabilizing and not helpful to the cause of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Asked about Biden’s comments during his own appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation, Admiral Mullen cautioned that “any strike on Iran … could be very destabilizing.”

An Israeli strike would be risky for Israel and its U.S. ally, Georgetown’s Byman stressed. “Diplomatically,” said Byman, it means that “Israel is acting alone.” Meanwhile, Iran “can retaliate through Hezbollah among other options” against Israeli and possibly U.S. targets, including in Iraq — said to be a chief concern of the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno. “Israel would pay that price if it was sure that the operation would succeed,” Byman said. “But given military limits, that is uncertain.”

Although the vice president is frequently portrayed as lacking message discipline, current and former aides that say on foreign policy, the three-decade veteran of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is deeply knowledgeable. “He knows his brief,” one aide said.

Biden’s reputation “for not having an internal editor means people give him more slack,” the Hill foreign-policy aide said. “It’s part of his charm as well as a liability. You get the straight-up deal with him. He’s not a good liar. He says what’s on his mind. In some cases, that’s helpful, particularly with foreign leaders.”

Biden was recently asked by President Obama to lead administration efforts on Iraq, where he made a surprise visit last week. The vice president is scheduled to travel to Georgia and Ukraine later this month to signal the U.S. commitment to their independence from Moscow.

Aides say that Biden and Obama have different styles, but share highly compatible views on foreign policy and national security.

“Here is the thing,” one White House official said. “While polar opposites stylistically, there were no two candidates in Democratic primary who were closer on the issues. That speech — ‘I don’t oppose all wars, just [dumb] wars’ — that’s Biden. He has no problem with going to war,” when necessary, the official said.

Biden is seen as a “muscular Democrat, because he was a leading proponent of taking action in the Balkans,” a person familiar with his thinking said on condition of anonymity. “Which is ironic, because he originally ran for his Senate office against the Vietnam war.” He does not consider himself a “Scoop Jackson Democrat,” as some in Democratic foreign-policy circles locate him.

At times in recent weeks, the vice president was reported to have been more forward-leaning in internal discussions about how much support the administration should express for Iranians protesting disputed elections results. In a Meet the Press interview two days after Iran’s disputed elections, Biden went further than the administration had previously and said he “had doubts” that the vote count was fair. But as events moved quickly on the ground in Iran, the White House began to use increasingly strong language to condemn the Iranian regime’s crackdown on demonstrators, while trying to preserve its efforts to pursue engagement with Iran.

Biden downplayed any such rift in the interview with Stephanopoulos Sunday, while reiterating the administration’s singular message to Iran. “Look, the Iranian government has a choice,” Biden said. “They either choose greater isolation …or they decide to take a rightful place in the civilized, big, great nations … And so the ball’s in their court.”

“They are still working to engage,” CSIS’s Alterman said of the Obama administration. “But the Iranians are concerned that any engagement will expose how much weaker Iran is than the United States.”

Khalid Mohammed-Pool/Getty Images