Friday, July 31, 2009

Why the Role Reversal on Iran? Advocates of engagement understand that Iran isn't able to negotiate now, given its internal paralysis

The ultra-hardline Iranian newspaper Kayhan argued yesterday that the West is confused about how to engage Iran in the aftermath of Iran’s election and crackdown on peaceful demonstrators. However, it isn’t confusion that they’re witnessing – it’s a surprising role reversal. Many people who previously advocated for engagement now say that we need to hold off for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that Iran’s fragmented political system is in too much disarray to respond to U.S.-backed diplomacy. Conversely, many hawks in the U.S. are now arguing that engagement must begin immediately.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made it clear what the Obama administration thinks. “We’ve certainly reached out and made it clear that’s what we’d be willing to do, even now, despite our absolute condemnation of what they’ve done in the election and since, but I don’t think they have any capacity to make that kind of decision right now,” she said. As one blogger astutely put it, demanding Iran to talk to the U.S. right now would be akin to Russia demanding that the United States negotiate an arms reduction treaty in the midst of Bush v. Gore.

Rather than benefiting from Iran’s vulnerabilities, engaging now could lead to the most dangerous scenario. As Dr. Trita Parsi said yesterday in Foreign Policy magazine:

"Of all scenarios the Obama administration could end up facing — an Iran that refuses to come to the table, for example, or an Iran that only uses talks to play for time — the worst scenario is another one: where the parties begin talks according to the set timetable, but fail to reach an agreement due to an inability to deliver. If talks fail, U.S. policymakers will be left with increasingly unpalatable options as a result."

Perhaps this explains why advocates of sanctions and/or war, who not long ago were saying that we shouldn’t talk to Iran at all, are now saying that the U.S. should engage Iran immediately with a short timetable.

Why the role reversal? Many in Washington believe engagement is a pointless exercise and are eager to impose sanctions and/or bomb Iran. The perma-skeptics of diplomacy think we should impose an artificial deadline, rush to engage, and then run headlong into Iran’s political paralysis. Their plan would have us miss the deadline, sanction Iran as much as possible, and then lobby for the U.S. to bomb Iran when sanctions fail to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Of course, this is an incredibly foolish “solution.” As every Iran expert worth their salt has noted, bombing Iran is perhaps the only thing that can cement this government’s hold on power indefinitely into the future.

With Israel’s head of intelligence publicly saying Iran won’t be able to develop a deliverable nuclear weapon until 2014 at the earliest, the U.S. can and should wait for the right time to engage.

Reposted from NIAC Insight

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Iranian Nuclear Threat, Obama and Israel, by Gidon D. Remba, Israel Horizons, Summer 2009

As published in Israel Horizons, Summer 2009 (and the Meretz USA blog: Part 1 and Part 2)

Barack Obama was swept into the White House promising to reverse the Bush administration’s aversion to diplomatic engagement with new overtures to the Arab and Islamic worlds. While the Obama administration remains committed to direct talks with Iran in the wake of its fraudulent election and brutal suppression of peaceful protests, the message has been leavened with new signals. The administration will not yield to the demands of Republicans, Israeli government hardliners, AIPAC and others in the organized American Jewish community to enact “enhanced sanctions” now. It understands that doing so would quash any hope of Iranian openness to a deal preventing the development of highly-enriched weapons-grade uranium and nuclear arms through a new system of robust monitoring.

Obama now says that there is a September “time frame” for Iran to respond to offers to discuss its nuclear program. If by then Iran has not accepted the invitation to talk, the United States and “potentially a lot of other countries” are going to say “we need to take further steps.” The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations is planning a “Washington Day” on Sept. 10 that “would bring together 300 to 500 leaders from across the United States to press for [new] sanctions legislation.” But the ongoing schism among clerical leaders within the Iranian regime may make it impossible for even secret talks with the US to begin within that short a time-line.

The administration will need to co-opt Congressional leaders to resist any action on new sanctions legislation, if it believes there is a chance for an arrangement with Iran. This will lead to new tensions between President Obama and much of the organized Jewish community, who will be calling even more vociferously for the administration to abandon diplomacy and ratchet up economic pressure on Iran.

On the other hand, if, after a fair trial, diplomacy fails, and the administration decides, in concert with other countries, to move ahead with new sanctions, those who pressed for a backup plan to engagement will demand a new Plan B in case enhanced sanctions prove unable to halt Iran’s march down the nuclear path. The Obama administration could develop a new policy based on nuclear deterrence and containment of Iran, as General John Abizaid, who headed the US Central Command, has suggested.

In short, the US, Israel and the Arab world would live with a nuclear Iran, one which might have the capability to develop nuclear weapons. Prying Syria from Iran’s orbit through an American-backed peace accord with Israel would reinforce this approach, weakening Iran strategically. Or Israel could, more insistently than before, demand US acquiescence or support for a preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear sites.

Alan Dershowitz opined in a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “Has Obama Turned On Israel?”: “If the Obama administration were to shift toward learning to live with a nuclear Iran and attempt to deny Israel the painful option of attacking its nuclear targets as a last resort, that would…weaken the security of the Jewish state.”

But it’s far from clear that opposing an Israeli preemptive strike would harm Israel’s security. It may well be the converse: an attack on Iran may be the single most dangerous course, embroiling the US and Israel in a new, unwinnable, catastrophic region-wide war.

Vice President Joe Biden recently signaled a more forceful tone by reminding Iran that Israel has the sovereign right to pursue a military option after the diplomatic window closes. “We cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do…if they make a determination that they're existentially threatened and their survival is threatened by another country.”

Both Biden and Obama made clear that the door remains open to engagement with Iran, but Biden suggested that if Iran wishes to avoid a host of negative consequences—“isolation” and the possibility of an Israeli preemptive strike—its leaders had better engage soon with the US on the nuclear issue. Alluding to the administration’s commitment to pursue negotiations with Iran despite Israeli objections, Biden stressed that “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…we, coincidentally, believe is also in the interest of Israel and the whole world.”

Would the US deny to Israeli aircraft over-flight rights in Iraq? The Vice President offered that “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.” Translation: Iran should consider that even if the US were to deny over-flight rights to Israeli planes seeking to reach Iran via Iraq, Israel might still opt to strike Iran some other way, if Iran does not come to terms with the US.

In the very same news cycle, it was reported that an Israeli sub (which can be equipped with nuclear-armed cruise missiles) traversed the Suez Canal with Egypt's permission, putting it in closer range to Iran in case Israel opted to launch a preemptive strike or a second strike. At the same time, the Mossad chief reportedly assured Netanyahu that the Saudis had agreed to Israel overflying their territory in a mission that would serve their “common security interests”—a report immediately denied by the Saudis, as expected. Nevertheless, Iran was meant to get the hint.

President Obama wasted no time in clarifying that the US had “absolutely not” given Israel a green light for a possible attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. “We have said directly to the Israelis that it is important to try and resolve this in an international setting in a way that does not create major conflict in the Middle East," said the President.

Ynet reported on July 16 that two “Israeli missile-firing warships sailed through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea, ten days after a submarine capable of launching a nuclear missile strike. The Times of London quoted an Israeli official as saying, ’Israel is investing time in preparing itself for the complexity of an attack on Iran. These maneuvers are a message to Iran that Israel will follow up on its threats.’ The report described [the naval maneuvers] as ‘a clear signal that Israel was able to put its strike force within range of Iran at short notice.’”

Are such threats of Israeli military action simply bluster, a way of exerting pressure on Iran to reach agreement with the US? Or will Israel launch a preemptive assault on Iran?

Israeli Strike or Bust?

Neoconservatives have lost no time beating the drums of war and insisting that the time for an Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear program is now. “With no other timely option, the already compelling logic for an Israeli strike is nearly inexorable,” urged John Bolton. Ridiculing the administration’s willingness to attempt direct talks with Iran as a “theological commitment to negotiations”—a projection of Bolton’s own ideological opposition to them under any circumstances—Bolton asserts that there is no point to waiting for talks to play out with Iran.

“Unfortunately, the Obama administration has a ‘Plan B,’” he continues, “which would allow Iran to have a ‘peaceful’ civil nuclear power program while publicly ‘renouncing’ the objective of nuclear weapons. Obama would define such an outcome as ‘success,’ even though in reality it would hardly be different from what Iran is doing and saying now.” But the point of negotiations is to establish an intrusive inspections system not unlike the one that succeeded in preventing Saddam from re-developing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a fact that Bolton finds too inconvenient to acknowledge.

In April 2008, Benjamin Netanyahu, then leader of the opposition, said to Stephen Hadley, then President George W. Bush’s national security adviser: “Ahmadinejad is a modern Hitler and the mistakes that were made prior to the Second World War must not be repeated.” Soon after he became prime minister of Israel, Netanyahu repeatedly issued warnings about the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons: “These are not regular times,” he said. “The danger is hurtling toward us. The real danger [is] underestimating the threat. . . My job is first and foremost to ensure the future of the state of Israel…the leadership's job is to eliminate the danger. Who will eliminate it? It is us or no one.”

Such statements from Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders have stoked apocalyptic fears among the Israeli Jewish public, and much of the mainstream American Jewish leadership. A former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has written that “If President Obama’s diplomatic efforts and subsequent tougher sanctions fail, then the president and the world should understand and support Israel's engagement in military action, if it so undertakes, to halt or delay Iran's capability of dropping a nuclear bomb on Tel Aviv. One Holocaust is enough for the Jewish people.”

The “mad mullahs” picture of a regime driven by a martyr complex—a nation of irrational, undeterrable suicide bombers—has become firmly rooted in the Israeli Jewish psyche. But a series of reports has cast doubt on this view of Israel’s situation—and on the entire incendiary complex of fears propelling us towards an Israeli attack on Iran. Yediot Ahronoth security correspondent Ronen Bergman reported that “Major General Aharon Zeevi Farkash, the former chief of military intelligence, described Israel's public perception of the Iranian nuclear threat as ‘distorted.’ His view—which is shared by many in Israel's security and intelligence services—is that Israel is not Iran's primary target,” nor its main motive for seeking a nuclear weapons capacity, and therefore, “Israel must not attack Iran unilaterally.”

Israel’s intelligence services recognize, continues Bergman, that “throughout its 30 years of existence, the Iranian regime has shown pragmatism and moderation whenever its survival was at stake. And the Iranians clearly understand that a nuclear attack against Israel would lead to a devastating Israeli counterstrike that, among other things, would mean the end of the revolutionary regime. Finally, the Mossad and military intelligence believe that the real reason the Iranians are intent on acquiring nuclear weapons … is to deter US intervention and efforts at regime change.”

It is widely understood among those who have closely studied the Iranian regime that it operates according to the principle of maslehat, “expediency,” taking a cost-benefit approach to decision-making. “Far from being a suicidally ideological regime,” observes Iran expert Mohsen M. Milani, “Tehran seeks to ensure the survival of the Islamic Republic while advancing the country’s interests through negotiations.” Internal repression and détente with the US both serve these ends, as they did for post-Tiananmen China and Soviet Russia.

According to Dr. Reuven Pedatzur, a miltary affairs scholar at Tel Aviv University, an exhaustive study by Abdullah Toukan and Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington concluded that “it is questionable whether Israel has the military capability to destroy Iran's nuclear program, or even to delay it for several years.” The odds of success from a military point of view are not great, the study's authors conclude. Second, Israel would only attack Iran's known nuclear sites. But it is likely that following such a strike—which would be unlikely to succeed even against the known sites—Iran would accelerate its uranium enrichment efforts in its secret sites, thus negating any possible benefits of a successful attack.

Third, Iran would certainly retaliate against Israeli targets with Shahab-3 missiles, as would Hezbollah and Hamas with many thousands of their own rockets, while also dispatching waves of suicide bombers into Israel. “Hezbollah now has some 40,000 rockets; Israel does not have a response to these rockets. The rocket defense systems now being developed (Iron Dome and Magic Wand) are still far from completion, and even after they become operational, it is doubtful they will prove effective against thousands of rockets launched at Israel.” The Israeli strike would also sow instability throughout the Middle East and potentially spur attacks against US forces and American allies in the region, while squelching Iran’s reformist movement.

The Pentagon’s top military and civilian leaders have long opposed an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, emphasized that military action “could have grave consequences and would be very destabilizing.” Mullen also suggested that President Barack Obama's diplomatic outreach to Iran holds promise. But the window for diplomacy to avert a dangerous Middle East nuclear arms race is closing, he warned.

Will Israel continue to huff and puff and threaten that it might hit Iran? Will it strike? Israel is unlikely to attack while the US is attempting to engage Iran; such action would jeopardize Israel’s good relations with the United States. But what if diplomacy, and sanctions, fail?

Political scientist Steven Cook has suggested that “all those indications portending an Israeli attack – the strike against Syria in September 2007, the large air exercises over the Mediterranean in the summer of 2008, and the recent countrywide drills that the IDF’s Home Command conducted [and Israel’s more recent naval maneuvers, coupled with the upcoming Arrow missile interceptor tests at a US missile range in the Pacific]—might actually indicate that Israel is trying to figure out how to deter Iran, rather than attack it.”

But security analyst Bergman has reached less sanguine conclusions from his conversations with Israeli government officials: “As Iran approaches nuclear weapons capability—some time in 2010, according to current Mossad estimates—an increasing number of people in Netanyahu's circle will adopt the view that Israel needs to take action and that the United States will be understanding of Israel's needs. And if the Obama administration is not so understanding? Israel may decide that the existential danger posed by a potential second Holocaust warrants risking even a serious rift with the United States. Ultimately, the fear of a nuclear-armed state whose leader talks openly of destroying Israel may outweigh the views of the country's intelligence experts.”

Gidon D. Remba is executive director of the Jewish Alliance for Change (, a nonprofit organization which supported Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy and advocates for a progressive domestic and foreign policy agenda. He also edits the group’s “Say No To War With Iran” site ( and blogs at Tough Dove Israel ( He served as senior foreign press editor and translator in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office, 1977-1978, during the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David peace process.

Clinton Speaks of Shielding Mideast from Iran, suggesting a nuclear Iran can be deterred by the U.S.

"The best way to blunt [the] threat [of Iranian nuclear weapons] - which is still not imminent - has always been deterrence and containment, a policy that worked against Stalin and Mao and works against North Korea, a far more unstable and bizarre regime. Secretary Clinton correctly outlined such a policy last week." Fareed Zakaria wrote on Saturday in Newsweek

Key European nations -- probably including Russia and Germany -- now believe the world will have to live with such an Iranian capability rather than take military action or impose harsh sanctions. Jim Hoagland wrote in Sunday's Washington Post

PHUKET, Thailand —Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Wednesday that the United States would consider extending a “defense umbrella” over the Middle East if the country continued to defy international demands that it halt work that could lead to nuclear weapons.

…Speaking during a televised town hall meeting in Bangkok, Mrs. Clinton said, “We want Iran to calculate what I think is a fair assessment, that if the U.S. extends a defense umbrella over the region, if we do even more to support the military capacity of those in the gulf, it’s unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer, because they won’t be able to intimidate and dominate, as they apparently believe they can, once they have a nuclear weapon.”…

Mrs. Clinton later clarified her comments on Iran, delivered in advance of a regional meeting here, saying her warning that the United States might create such an umbrella did not represent any backing away from the Obama administration’s position that it must prevent Tehran from obtaining a bomb capability. But her words suggested that the administration was developing a strategy should all efforts at negotiation fail.

…Israel’s minister of intelligence and atomic energy, Dan Meridor, told Israeli Army radio: “I was not thrilled to hear the American statement from yesterday that they will protect their allies with a nuclear umbrella, as if they have already come to terms with a nuclear Iran. I think that’s a mistake.” (NY Times, July 23, 2009)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Clinton: We will engage Iran and offer its leaders a clear choice: join the international community as a responsible member, or further isolation

"...[S]mart power counsels that we lead with diplomacy, even in the case of adversaries or nations with whom we disagree. We cannot be afraid or unwilling to engage. Yet some suggest that this is a sign of weakness or naiveté - or acquiescence to these countries' repression of their own people. That is wrong.

"The President and I believe that refusing to talk to countries rarely punishes them. And as long as engagement might advance our interests and our values, it is unwise to take it off the table. Negotiations can provide insight into regimes' calculations and the possibility - even if it seems remote - that a regime will, eventually, alter its behavior in exchange for the benefits of acceptance into the international community.... exhausting the option for dialogue is also more likely to make our partners more willing to exert pressure should persuasion fail."

"We watched the energy of Iran's election with great admiration, only to be appalled by the manner in which the government used violence to quell the voices of the Iranian people, then tried to hide its actions by arresting foreign nationals, expelling journalists, and cutting off access to technology. As we ... have made clear, these actions are deplorable and unacceptable. We know very well what we inherited with Iran. We know how far its nuclear program has advanced - and we know that refusing to deal with the Islamic Republic has not succeeded in altering the Iranian march toward a nuclear weapon, reducing Iranian support for terror, or improving Iran's treatment of its citizens.

"Neither the president nor I have any illusions that direct dialogue with the Islamic Republic will guarantee success. But we also understand the importance of trying to engage Iran and offering its leaders a clear choice: whether to join the international community as a responsible member or to continue down a path to further isolation. Direct talks provide the best vehicle for presenting and explaining that choice..... Iran can become a constructive actor in the region if it stops threatening its neighbors and supporting terrorism. It can assume a responsible position in the international community if it fulfills its obligations on human rights. The choice is clear. We remain ready to engage with Iran, but the time for action is now. The opportunity will not remain open indefinitely."

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

US Joint Chiefs Chair Adm. Mullen: Iran strike would be "very destabilizing;" "Obama's diplomatic outreach to Iran holds promise"

A military strike to thwart Iran's nuclear weapons capability remains on the table but could have grave consequences and would be "very destabilizing," the top U.S. military officer said Tuesday.

"I worry a great deal about the response of a country that gets struck," said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "It is a really important place to not go, if we can not go there in any way, shape or form."

Iran is perhaps one to three years away from getting the bomb, leaving a small and shrinking opening for diplomacy to avert what he said could be a dangerous nuclear arms race in the Middle East, Mullen said. "I think the time window is closing."

Mullen said President Barack Obama's diplomatic outreach to Iran holds promise, despite political upheaval and deadly protests following Iran's disputed presidential election.

Obama told The Associated Press last week that persuading Iran to forgo nuclear weapons has been made more difficult by the Iranian government's handling of claims that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole re-election.

Mullen pointedly said "the strike option" - is one possible outcome. He suggested that a strike, meaning missile or other attacks to blow up Iran's known nuclear facilities, is a last resort. It would be "very destabilizing," Mullen said.

Mullen was referring to Iran's response should it be attacked by either the United States or Israel, although he was careful to say that Israel can speak and choose for itself. His remarks made clear that the Obama administration wants to avoid a strike by either country.

Mullen, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it is critical to find a solution "before Iran gets a nuclear capability, or that anyone ... would take action to strike."

On Sunday, Vice President Joe Biden had suggested that the new U.S. administration would not stand in the way of an Israeli strike [sic: that is not in fact what Biden said]. That is not the message U.S. officials have been trying to deliver in public and private, but spokesmen insisted Biden was not speaking out of turn.

The United States would join European nations, Russia and China in negotiations over Iran's disputed nuclear program, if Iran agreed to terms for beginning the talks. Obama has also said he would hold direct talks with Iran's leadership if it would help.

The leaders of Group of Eight countries, set to meet in Italy, have yet to forge a common position on Iran's violent crackdown on post-electoral protests, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Tuesday on the eve of the summit.

Berlusconi, who chairs the gathering of world leaders opening Wednesday, noted that some countries, such as France, were calling for tougher action against Tehran, while others, such as Russia, favored a softer stance to keep dialogue open.

Iran claims its fast-track nuclear development project is intended only for the peaceful production of electricity. Mullen, like other U.S. officials, said he is sure Iran intends to develop weapons and is working hard and fast to do so.
U.S. army chief: Iran strike would be 'very destabilizing'
By The Associated Press

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

President Obama: No green light to Israel for attacking Iran; US policy is to resolve the nuclear issue "in a peaceful way using diplomatic channels"

Jerusalem Post: The US has "absolutely not" given Israel a green light for a possible attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, US President Barack Obama said Tuesday. Obama was qualifying comments Vice President Joe Biden had made Sunday that left the impression the US would not stand in the way of an Israeli action.

"We have said directly to the Israelis that it is important to try and resolve this in an international setting in a way that does not create major conflict in the Middle East," said Obama, currently in Russia, during a CNN interview. Obama said it was "very important that I'm as clear as I can be, and our administration is as consistent as we can [be] on this issue."

The president said that Biden had simply been stating the "categorical fact" that "we can't dictate to other countries what their security interests are. What is also true is that it is the policy of the United States to resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear capabilities in a peaceful way through diplomatic channels," he said.

On Sunday, Biden was asked on ABC's This Week whether the US would stand in the way militarily if Israel decided to take out Iran's nuclear program. The US "cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do," he said. "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. Israel had no formal comment on either the Obama or Biden remarks.
Nevertheless, the IDF has taken into consideration the possibility that it will not receive US permission to fly over Iraq on the way to Iran, and has drawn up an operational plan for this contingency. While its preference is to coordinate with the US, defense officials have said in the past that Israel was preparing a wide range of options for such an operation.
The Washington Times reported Tuesday that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his top deputies had not formally asked for US aid or permission for a possible military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, since they feared the White House would not approve.
The report quoted two unnamed Israeli officials.
An anonymous senior Israeli official was quoted as saying that Netanyahu was determined that "it made no sense" to press the matter after the negative response former US president George W. Bush. Bush gave the prime minister's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, a negative answer when he asked early last year for US assistance for possible military strikes on Iran.
"There was a decision not to press this because it was probably inadequate for the engagement policy and what we know about Obama's approach to Iran," the official said.
Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.

'No US green light for attacking Iran'

Sunday, July 5, 2009

White House: Now is the time for direct diplomacy with Iran; Biden: "we will engage if Iran wants to engage;" US opposes new sanctions on Iran

While the hawks are calling on the Obama administration to abandon any plan to negotiate with Iran over the nuclear issue (see, for example, neocon uber-hawk John Bolton's "Time for an Israeli Strike?" in the Washington Post, July 2, 2009), the administration has remained steadfast in its commitment to keeping the door open to talking with Iran in the hope of working out a diplomatic solution. At the same time, the administration is now signalling a more forceful tone by reminding Iran that the "bad cop"--Israel--has the sovereign right to pursue a military option against Iran if it decides it needs to do so after the diplomatic window closes by the end of this year.

The message remains, as reflected in Joe Biden's remarks on 'This Week': ABC's George Stephanopoulos Goes Behind the Scenes with Vice President JoeBiden in Iraq, (July 5, 2009), "if the Iranians seek to engage, we will engage." But the administration is sending a message to the mullahs that if they want to avoid a host of negative consequences--Biden alludes to "isolation" and the possibility of an Israeli preemptive strike--they had better get engaged with the US on the nuclear issue soon.

Another indication that the administration is seeking to initiate nuclear negotiations with Iran is a report in this weekend's Ha'aretz that "The United States is opposed to enacting a new set of financial sanctions against Iran that are due to be discussed in the G8 summit next week, diplomatic officials in New York reported Friday....American officials expressed concern that a decision to enact harsh steps against Iran during the G8 meeting could badly hurt the prospect of Tehran agreeing to renew negotiations with the permanent Security Council members."

"White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Biden's remarks did not signal any change of approach on Iran or Israel. 'The vice president refused to engage hypotheticals, and he made clear that our policy has not changed," Vietor said. "Our friends and allies, including Israel, know that the president believes that now is the time to explore direct diplomatic options.'"

Moreover, Biden emphasized that the US will not abandon a real effort to work out an agreeement with Iran to prevent its developing nuclear weapons (despite the clamor from Israel and American neocons about the supposed need to give up the administration's plan to try direct negotiations with the Iranian regime): "But there is no pressure from any nation that's going to alter our behavior as to how to proceed," Biden said. "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."

That's not a "theological" commitment to negotiations, as Bolton and other administration critics would have it. It's a recognition that despite the Iranian coup, our fundamental national interests remain unchanged: a diplomatic solution to the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons is still the best of all available options, and the US must fully and exhaustively explore this option with Iran.

(PS: See also "Despite Crisis, Policy on Iran is Engagement" in the New York Times today (7/6/09), which reports that President Obama said in an interview with the Times this weekend "that the accelerating crackdown on opposition leaders in Iran in recent days would not deter [him] from seeking to engage the country’s top leadership in direct negotiations.")

Biden interview transcript excerpt on Iran:

BIDEN: Well, the way you do it is if they choose to meet with the P5, under the conditions the P5 was laid out, it means they begin to change course. And it means that the protesters probably had some impact on the behavior of an administration that they don't like at all. And it believes and I believe that means there's consequences to that.Now, if they in fact decide to shut out the rest of the world, clamp down, further isolation, I think that takes them down a very different path.

STEPHANOPOULOS: How do you respond to those who say that it's the United States now that should hit the pause button, there should be a cause correction, and we shouldn't rush to sit down...

BIDEN: Well, we're not. We're not rushing to sit down. As I said to you, we have to wait to see how this sort of settles out. And there's already an offer laid out there by the permanent five plus one to say we're prepared to sit down and negotiate with you relative to your nuclear program. And so the ball's in their court.

STEPHANOPOULOS: When I saw President Ahmadinejad back in April, his response to that was that we need to see more from the United States first.Is it fair to say now that there will be absolutely no more concessions to the Iranians in advance of those discussions?BIDEN: It's fair to say the position the president has laid out will not change.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But there will be engagement -- if the Iranians want to...(CROSSTALK)

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.


U.S.: Letting Israel act freely on Iran isn't policy change

By Haaretz Service

Tags: Barack Obama, Iran

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said on Sunday that the Obama administration would not stand in Israel's way should the latter chooses to take military action to eliminate Iran's nuclear threat.

White House officials said that the vice president's remarks demonstrated only U.S. allowance of Israeli sovereignty, and not a change in policy on the part of the Obama administration.

Biden told ABC reporter George Stephanopoulos that Israel has the right to determine its own course of action with regard to the Iranian nuclear threat, regardless of what the Obama administration chooses to do, .

When asked whether the Obama administration would restrain Israeli military action against Iran, Biden responded:

"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."

Stephanaopoulos posed the question three times, and each time Biden repeated that Israel was free to choose its actions. "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."

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Biden's remarks did not signaling any change of approach on Iran or Israel.

"The vice president refused to engage hypotheticals, and he made clear that our policy has not changed," Vietor said. "Our friends and allies, including Israel, know that the president believes that now is the time to explore direct diplomatic options."

During the interview, Biden hinted that President Barack Obama was looking to take a harder line toward Iran over the latter's contentious nuclear program.

He said that Obama's offer for dialogue with Tehran remained on the table, but rejected the notion that the U.S. would make concessions for such negotiation to take place.

"The ball's in their court," Biden said. "If they choose to meet with the P-5 under the conditions the P-5 has laid out, it means they begin to change course. And it means that the protestors probably had some impact on the behavior of an administration that they don't like at all."

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday, when asked about Biden's comments, that the U.S. position on Iran and a military strike involves a political decision.

"I have been, for some time, concerned about any strike on Iran. I worry about it being very destabilizing, not just in and of itself but unintended consequences of a strike like that," Mullen said on CBS' Face the Nation.

"At the same time, I'm one that thinks Iran should not have nuclear weapons. I think that is very destabilizing," he said.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Top Obama Advisor David Axelrod: US "looking to sit down and talk to the Iranians."

U.S. officials insist the door remains open [to negotiations with Iran over the nuclear issue], despite questions about the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad's re-election and his anti-American rhetoric.

"It's in the United States' national interest to make sure that we have employed all elements at our disposal, including diplomacy, to prevent Iran from achieving that nuclear capacity," said Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
And David Axelrod, Obama's top adviser, said Washington was "looking to [...] sit down and talk to the Iranians."

Still he qualified his comments with a veiled threat of further U.N. sanctions should Iran remain defiant...Axelrod said that any negotiations with Tehran will offer "two paths [...] one brings them back into the community of nations, and the other has some very stark consequences."

Associated Press, Wed Jul 1, 12:58 pm ET