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.