Stephen M. Walt

Much ado about nothing?

Last weekend’s kerfluffle over Vice President Joe Biden’s supposed “green light” for an Israeli attack on Iran was perplexing on several grounds.  Appearing on ABC’s This Week, Biden told interviewer George Stephanopoulos the United States could not “dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do when they make a determination … that ...

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Last weekend’s kerfluffle over Vice President Joe Biden’s supposed “green light” for an Israeli attack on Iran was perplexing on several grounds.  Appearing on ABC’s This Week, Biden told interviewer George Stephanopoulos the United States could not “dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do when they make a determination … that they’re existentially threatened.” Some observers saw this as a typical Biden-esque gaffe, while others interpreted his statement as a subtle way to up the pressure on Tehran and as a sign that the administration’s position was hardening in the aftermath of the disputed Iranian election. A third view saw Biden’s statement as a veiled warning that if Israel chose to act, they would face the consequences on their own.

All this speculation missed the more important features of the situation.  First, Biden was in one sense merely stating a truism: Israel is a sovereign nation, and it is inconceivable that United States would physically prevent it from attacking Iran even if we believed (correctly) that it was a stupid move. In the end, international politics is a “self-help” system, and Biden was simply acknowledging that in an anarchic order, all states ultimately depend on their own resources and strategies.  

Second, it doesn’t really matter if the United States gives Israel a “green light” or not. If Israel were to attack Iran, the United States would be implicated in the attack even if we had told them not to do it. The United States is Israel’s main ally and the source of the advanced weapons it would be using to carry out the attack. Despite his current difficulties with the Netanyahu government, President Obama has repeatedly emphasized the special nature of the U.S.-Israeli relationship — just as his predecessors did — and he referred to America’s bond with Israel as “unbreakable” in his recent Cairo speech. In the eyes of most of the world — including Iran — the United States and Israel are joined at the hip.  

As a result, the U.S. image suffers whenever Israel does something that others find objectionable — like building settlements, bombing Lebanon or blockading Gaza — even in those rare cases where the United States does oppose the actions in question. If we do oppose the use of force against Iran, therefore, top U.S. officials have to say so clearly and repeatedly, and not just whenever the Veep gets careless.

Unfortunately, right now an Israeli attack would appear to many to have tacit U.S. support. Prominent pundits and former officials have been pushing for stronger measures for some time, and at least one hardliner — former special envoy to Iran Dennis Ross — is now working in the White House.  Washington will be blamed for an attack even if it wasn’t our idea, because it is so closely tied to Tel Aviv and has made an issue of Iran’s nuclear program in the past.

As I’ve said before, the only way to convince Iran not to seek a nuclear weapons capability is to take the threat of force off the table and see if Iran’s leaders will agree to forego weaponization under strict international safeguards. That approach may well fail, which would force Israel and the United States to fall back on a strategy of deterrence. But the post-election crackdown in Iran doesn’t mean that its leaders are either irrational or suicidal; if anything, it shows that they are just garden-variety authoritarians desperate to cling to their power and prerogatives.  Deterrence will work, even if it is not our first preference.

In short, we are more-or-less where we were before. Preventive war could delay but not eliminate Iran’s nuclear problem, and an attack would only reinforce Iran’s desire for a bomb of their own. Trying to foment regime change is more likely to strengthen the hardliners than to weaken their grip. The only realistic option is diplomacy, and Biden’s loose talk didn’t alter that reality either. But it is one of those issues where clarity is preferable to ambiguity, and where the administration needs to speak with one voice.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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