Mixed Signals on Iran

Speaking on ABC's This Week, Vice President Joe Biden had this exchange with George Stephanopoulos concerning possible Israeli military action aimed at taking out the Iranian nuclear program.

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.

No one disputes the sovereign rights of Israel to act in its own interests. However the Vice President missed an opportunity to unequivocally warn that there would be consequences. As the New York Times notes the Vice President's remarks went "beyond at least the spirit of any public utterances by President Barack Obama, who has said that diplomatic efforts to halt Iran's nuclear program should be given to the end of the year." And given the Vice President's penchant for sometimes imprecise language, it was not immediately clear was whether Mr. Biden was sending an officially sanctioned message. More likely, he simply failed to convey the serious geo-political repercussions an Israeli attack on Iran is likely to bring. Alternatively, Vice President Biden may have been trying to send a message to Tehran, engage and be serious about it or watch out.

On this score, Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, was more precise during his appearance on the competing Fox News programme. Admiral Mullen was more blunt, warning of the costs of any Israeli military strike against Iran.

"It could be very destabilizing, and it is the unintended consequences of that which aren't predictable," he said on "Fox News Sunday." Asked to choose between military action and permitting Iran to gain nuclear weapons capability, Admiral Mullen noted both would be "really, really bad outcomes," adding that "speaks to the very narrow space that we have to try to resolve this so that neither one of those things occur."

Still, he added, "I think it's very important, as we deal with Iran, that we don't take any options, including military options, off the table."

But the decision to engage Iran remains on the table.

In an interview with The New York Times, a day before his scheduled departure for Moscow on Sunday, Mr. Obama said he had "grave concern" about the arrests and intimidation of Iran's opposition leaders, but insisted, as he has throughout the Iranian crisis, that the repression would not close the door on negotiations with the Iranian government.

"We've got some fixed national security interests in Iran not developing nuclear weapons, in not exporting terrorism, and we have offered a pathway for Iran to rejoining the international community," Mr. Obama said.

In the Saturday interview, Mr. Obama seemed to acknowledge that the administration was still struggling for the right strategy to stop nations from obtaining nuclear weapons capacity, after so many mixtures of inducements and threats had failed.

"You know, I don't think any administration over the last decade has had the perfect recipe for discouraging North Korea or Iran from developing nuclear weapons," he said, in what was clearly intended as droll understatement. "We know that it is going to be a tough slog."

It will be a tougher slog if seasoned politicians continue to send mixed signals.

Tags: Admiral Mike Mullen, Obama Administration, US Foreign Policy, US-Iranian Relations, Vice President Joe Biden (all tags)

Comments

3 Comments

Map skills and Israeli bombing

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_fjW71B3WLTQ/Sj ZLuO4CbTI/AAAAAAAAAPM/UVV3rh_kn1k/s1600- h/Middle_east.jpg

The above link is to a very nice map of the Mid-East showing some realities. Namely that Israel cannot attack Iran without material assistance from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or the United States. Israel's planes do not have the range to fly around Saudi Arabia and all other routes require that Israeli refueling aircraft are allowed to stage themselves unmolested by the Iranian Air Force.

Anthony Cordesman and Abdullah Foukan did a recent detailed study of this whole issue, a study which has an abundance of really valuable material on Israel and Iran's respective military and ballistic missile capability.
http://csis.org/files/media/csis/pubs/09 0316_israelistrikeiran.pdf
Study on a Possible Israeli Strike on Iran's Nuclear Development
Facilities  One of their conclusions?

*A  military strike by Israel against Iranian Nuclear Facilities is possible and the optimum route would be along the Syrian-Turkish border then over a small portion of Iraq then into Iran, and back the same route. However, the number of aircraft required, refueling along the way and getting to the targets without being detected or intercepted would be complex and high risk and would lack any assurances that the overall mission will have a high success rate.
Summary? Risky and doubtful. Further reading reveals that such an attack even if confined to a small set of targets would require about 50% of Israel's strike capability and 100% of its refueling ability. If things went well.

But even at that Cordesman and Foukan understate the challenge. That "small portion or Iraq" is actually a couple of hundred miles of country just north of two major cities (Mosul and Irbil) through air-space until recently known as the "Northern No-Fly Zone", the chances of Israel sending planes undetected through it not once but twice (on the way out) are in my view zero.

Cordesman and Foukan make the best case they can but even they concede that the U.S. would get blamed and that the blowback horrible for decades to come. In the worst case the IDF loses a big part of its air force.

This is all between a Neo-Con fantasy and a big bluff by Israel induced to make the U.S. do the dirty work. A fair reading of Cordesman and Foukan is that Israel simply cannot pull this off on their own even if everything went perfectly to plan. Which of course rarely happens in anything.

We are in a country where a frighteningly large percentage of our citizens can't find the U.S. on a world map. Which is something the Israel bombs Iran crowd are counting on. Because if you look at the map you can see that this is just a no-go.

by Bruce Webb 2009-07-06 09:36AM | 0 recs
Re: Map skills and Israeli bombing
Saudis Give Nod to Israeli Raid on Iran
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/wo rld/middle_east/article6638568.ece
by markjay 2009-07-06 11:32AM | 0 recs
Re: Mixed Signals on Iran

Though Biden is prone to put his foot in his mouth, I seriously doubt this was a gaffe.  Rather, I think it's the Obama administration taken a new harder line on Iran.  They probably realize that productive negotiations with the current regime are not very feasible right now and it's thus better to raise the threat level a bit, all while maintaining plausible deniability that that is what they are doing.

by markjay 2009-07-06 11:35AM | 0 recs

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