A comment by Vice President Joe Biden that may have been a signal or a slipup, growing internal divisions in Tehran and a revived debate about an Israeli military strike stirred political and diplomatic speculation around the world and added new confusion for Jewish groups as the Iran nuclear clock continues to tick.
“Nobody sees any really good options for dealing with Iran on the immediate horizon,” said Martin Raffel, associate director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). “Events of the past few weeks have provided some cautious optimism that change can come to Iran in the long run.
“But we don’t have years in terms of the nuclear weapons issue,” Raffel said. “The unrest doesn’t mean the nuclear program is slowing down.”
While signs of internal dissent in Iran are clearer, the signals about what comes next in U.S. policy are becoming murkier. They include both Biden’s statement that Israel is a “sovereign nation” that can “determine for itself” the best response to Iran’s nuclear threat and the administration decision to oppose tougher G8 sanctions.
At the same time, prominent neoconservatives are turning up the volume on their message that time is running out for Israel to solve the problem militarily.
The Obama administration’s continuing quest for dialogue means a “lengthy negotiating process that will just increase the danger,” said John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “Therefore, making a decision whether to use military force needs to be accelerated.”
Only days after a Bolton op-ed calling for Israeli military action detonated on the pages of the Washington Post, Biden stirred more controversy with comments about Israel’s right to make its own strategic choices — comments widely interpreted as at least an amber light to Jerusalem, and maybe a green one.
While conceding Biden’s comments might be a typical Biden gaffe, Bolton said, “I would guess this is intentional. Three or four times in the interview, he was given a chance to modify his comments, but he stuck with them. He gave the impression he knew exactly what he was saying, that it was cleared and authorized in advance.”
Biden’s comments “were an effort to signal to the Iranians that all options are on the table,” said Robert Lieber, a professor of government at Georgetown University. “It’s a neat ploy, because the U.S. isn’t threatening direct action. It’s using Israel in a good cop/bad cop ploy.”
But Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York, took a darker view of that strategy. “Taken at face value, and assuming [Biden] was on message, this represents a horror scenario from Israel’s policy-planning vantage point, since it essentially conveys the message of ‘do what you deem appropriate but bear the consequences,’” he said. The threat of Israel military action “becomes an American foreign policy tool.”
Asked by CNN if Biden’s comments represent a green light to Israel, President Barack Obama said, “Absolutely not. 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.” And officially, at least, Israeli leaders are sticking close to the administration line.
“There was no surprise, there was no news in that comment by the vice president,” said Danny Ayalon, the deputy foreign minister and a former Israeli ambassador in Washington. “Much as we are natural allies and best of friends, each country understands that the other has the sovereignty to take decisions that are related to its own defense. So there’s nothing new there.”
Others interpreted the more direct talk about the Israeli military option as the last gasp of American neo-cons fearful that the chances for a strike are fast receding.
“The people we’re hearing this from — like John Bolton — have no credibility on this issue,” said M.J. Rosenberg, Washington policy director for the Israel Policy Forum. “These are people who will advocate the war option regardless of what’s happening with nuclear development.”
But in another sign of how the election crisis has shaken up the Iran game board, Rosenberg said his personal perspectives are changing.
“I was one of those who said in the past that Iran wouldn’t destroy Israel because they’d end up destroying themselves,” Rosenberg said. “That’s true of the Iranian people — but these events show the mullahs are insane.”
While the street protests in Iran have tapered off, signs of ferment abound. An important clerical group labeled the election results “unacceptable due to the unhealthy voting process.” Several leading conservative figures in Iran have criticized the election and its brutal aftermath, suggesting that the authority of the mullahs commonly regarded as the real powers behind Ahmadinejad may be weakening.
“At the very highest levels, we’re seeing a severe split in Iran,” said Rabbi Marc Gopin, director of the Center on Religion, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution (CRDC) at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “Two-thirds of the Iranian parliament did not show up for President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad’s victory celebration. That’s huge, and its spells out a much greater opportunity to shift Iran than people had thought.”
But how to encourage that kind of change without triggering a backlash in a country with historic reasons for being wary of outside interference is a growing dilemma as the crisis takes on new layers of complexity.
“I think we’re all pretty much on the same page in terms of our goals, but policy options are looking a lot more complex since the election,” said an official with a major Jewish group. “I don’t think any major Jewish groups have changed their positions on policy issues, but there are a lot more questions we have to be asking ourselves right now, and I’m assuming the Obama administration is doing the same.”
Those questions include whether the surging unrest and growing divisions within the Iranian leadership will help or hurt the Obama administration’s engagement policy and whether toughened international sanctions will increase the pressure on the repressive regime in Tehran — or cause the people to rally around it.
“Since the regime defied the opposition they now rule without legitimacy, so engagement makes sense in terms of empowering the opposition in the long run,” said former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas. “On the other hand, a delegitimized regime feels threatened and vulnerable which makes it more, rather than less dangerous.”
An Iranian regime that interprets “engagement” as a back door to regime change “may resort to an accelerated pace of nuclear development if — and that’s a big if — they are at all capable of such accelerated pace,” he said.