What should be made of US Vice President Joe Biden’s recent comments on a possible Israeli military strike against Iran?
Mr Biden was interviewed on This Week, ABC’s Sunday morning show. He said that “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.”
Most commentators seem to think Biden was offering Israel a green light to attack.
He continued to say that Israel is “entitled to do that. Any sovereign nation is entitled to do that.”
But then he added that “there is no pressure from any nation that’s going to alter our behaviour as to how to proceed”.
The new policy of engagement with Iran “is in the national interest of the US, which we, coincidentally, believe is also in the interest of Israel and the whole world”.
Does this mean that the US will let Israel attack? It may have looked like it, given that at much the same time, news reports suggested that Israel was quietly authorised by the Saudis to fly over the desert kingdom en route to attack Iran.
A US nod and a Saudi collusion seemed to suggest the planes might soon be on the runway.
Trouble is, Mr Biden’s words could be interpreted the opposite way — they are too vague a to warrant one interpretation.
Mr Biden, in fact, seemed to be saying that the US policy is engagement with Iran, not bombing. He believes this policy is “in the national interest of the US” — so a strike, which would sabotage engagement, would run contrary to US national interest.
“Coincidentally,” he added, “this behaviour also serves Israel’s interest and the interest of the world community.” This could easily be construed as a warning to Israel — don’t strike, as it would harm us, you, and even the world. If you bomb Iran, you are alone.
Of course, Israel is “sovereign” and can choose to isolate itself and stand in the way of the US — but it may not be the wisest course of action. US policy remains firmly wedded to engagement, and so military action, even if still theoretically an option on the table, is currently out of the question.
President Obama explicitly denied, later, that Mr Biden had provided Israel with a “green light”.
During a visit to Moscow, he also said that US missile defence in Europe would not be needed if Iran’s nuclear ambitions were thwarted, and inquired about Russia’s sale of the S-300 air defence system to Iran, in the hope of dissuading Russia from delivering it.
Both moves indicate the US wishes to gain time for diplomacy and push the military option as far ahead into the future as possible.
Stopping the S-300 sale and offering Russia a grand bargain is a way to ensure that US engagement coincides with Israel’s interests.
Whether Israel chooses to attack, ultimately, is a decision for its government alone. But contrary to what pundits suggests, it is not one without consequences when it comes to the US administration.
That calculus might still change, of course, if Iran refuses to play ball with President Obama and if Russia shrugs off Mr Obama’s offers. But the hour of green lights and US acquiescence for Israeli fighter jets over the Persian Gulf is still far.