Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Biden's elegant Sunday morning message to the Iranians

Joe Biden's statement on Stephanoplous' "This Week" Sunday morning has got a lot of people upset that he was signaling the U.S. was giving Israel the green light to attack Iran. Frankly I consider that a wild misinterpretation of what he said and a failure to understand who Biden was really sending a signal to. Here is Biden's statement:

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.
Juan Cole and Yaakov Katz explain what Biden was really saying and doing.
Biden's comment "has a dual function of sending the message to Netanyahu that if he wants to cowboy it he is riding alone, and of warning the Iranians that Netanyahu might just be wild man enough to risk such a unilateral if Iran continues to be so intransigent with regard to seeking enrichment capabilities," Cole told me in an e-mail. "It is actually quite elegant."

The Jerusalem Post's veteran national security reporter, Yaakov Katz, reached a similar conclusion, suggesting Biden's comment could mean the Obama administration is trying to force the Iran engagement train back on track after it was derailed by the recent election.

"The problem was that that the elections led to a political impasse with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared the winner but Mir Hossein Mousavi refusing to recognize the results. As a result, the dialogue has not begun, and if Obama now spoke with Ahmadinejad, it would be as if he were granting legitimacy to an oppressive and violent regime," Katz writes. "This is where Israel comes into play. Biden can use Israel to threaten Iran that if it doesn't settle down at the negotiating table, who knows what the Netanyahu government might do."
As Juan Cole is reported saying, "It is actually quite elegant." Biden's statement restates the obvious truth that Israel is a sovereign nation and that we do not make their security decisions for them. In addition, it puts the Iranian Supreme Leader on notice that we are not going to force Israel to forgo an attack on their nuclear facility. The US simply doesn't have the capability to force them not to do so if the Israelis feel sufficiently threatened by Iran. So the Iranians need to keep that in mind as they decide whether or not to engage with the US and other nations which are upset with their behavior.

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