The Cable

No change in Iran policy, White House insists

As White House and Office of the Vice President aides formed a united front against widespread media speculation about a change in policy signaled by Vice President Joseph Biden's statement on a Sunday news show that Israel is a "sovereign nation" that could "determine for itself" how to deal with threats from Iran, analysts said that Israel may be wary of any such green light in any case.

In e-mails and phone calls today, administration officials insisted that Biden's comments were neither a signal of any change in policy, nor any sort of freelancing. Asked if Biden's remarks might have been part of an intentional messaging campaign to step up pressure on Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program, officials gave an emphatic "no." But for all that, the remarks were widely seen both in Washington and abroad as a message intended less for Jerusalem than for Tehran.

Israel's "biggest nightmare" is that one day the U.S. government "‘would call it and say 'OK guys, take care of it,'" said Tel Aviv University Iran expert David Menashri in a call Monday arranged by the Israeli Policy Forum, a U.S. nonprofit organization that supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Asked by ABC's George Stephanopoulos if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was right to give Obama until the end of the year to see if engagement with Iran was succeeding before taking matters into his own hands, Biden said, "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." Repeated follow-up questions from Stephanopoulos elicited similar responses.

"Some in the [Israeli] media are portraying [Biden's comments] as a 180-degree switch and as an indication that the administration is beginning to realize that 'engagement' may not work," said former Israeli Consul General to the United Nations Alon Pinkas. "That it is absolutely NOT a change, and if anything, it should be interpreted as a bad sign rather than a positive encouragement."

Biden's message "is the absolute worst-case scenario from Israel's policy-planning perspective," Pinkas elaborated. "'We will not prevent' means the U.S. will neither support nor encourage [Israeli attacks on Iran] or in other words, 'Do what you think is appropriate, but bear the consequences.'"

Although Israeli officials have expressed unending skepticism about the Obama administration's intentions to try to engage with Iran, and are often seen as chafing against Washington, Israel has conducted an intensive campaign over the past several years to make Iran's nuclear program an international rather than just an Israeli problem.

The reason, explains Georgetown University's Daniel Byman, is that Israel doesn't want to take on Iran by itself. "Militarily, this is a difficult operation," Byman said Monday, noting that Iran's nuclear program is widely dispersed, compared with Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor, which Israel struck in 1981. "This is much farther geographically, and that means planes can't loiter as long. They would [presumably] be flying over air space [in Iraq] controlled by the United States. You have to put together a strike package that's much more difficult. It also requires superb intelligence that may be lacking."

"There was no intention to change the position, and nothing the vice president said in any way indicates a change in U.S. position," said a White House official of Biden's remarks Sunday. "What he said and what [chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael] Mullen said taken together reflect our position: Israel is a sovereign nation, Israel is an ally and Israel has a right to defend itself and other countries cannot dictate how it defends itself. That being said, it would not be helpful if Israel were to act against Iran." Any interpretation that Biden's remarks signaled a change in U.S. policy is "spin," he added.

Biden did, however, strike a different tone when answering a similar question back on April 7. Asked if he were concerned that Netanyahu might strike Iranian nuclear facilities, Biden told CNN: "I don't believe Prime Minister Netanyahu would do that. I think he would be ill advised to do that."

How to account for the seeming discrepancy? "Any tonal difference is not intentional at all," the White House official said.

Did Biden coordinate with the White House to pressure Iran to respond to the still-outstanding offer of talks with Washington? Again, the answer from the White House was no.

Washington foreign-policy hands, however, were skeptical that the message was not quite deliberate.

"It's crazy to think the principal audience of this comment was in Jerusalem and not in Tehran," said Jon Alterman, director of Middle East Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I think the principal goal ... is to diminish the comfort level that people in the Iranian leadership may have that their actions don't have consequences." 

Deliberate or not, Biden's comments could increase the uncertainty in Tehran about U.S. intentions. "When the Iranians are confident the U.S. is going to sit on the Israelis, that creates one set of plans," Alterman continued. "And when they can't be sure of that," that creates another.

Pinkas, the former Israeli diplomat, agreed that Biden's intended audience may have been Iran. "There is a case to be made for the U.S. to pressure Iran through an implicit Israeli pending attack," he said.

The vice president is not trying to rattle sabers through Israel, one Washington foreign-policy hand said on condition of anonymity. "But if Iran feels further isolated, it's a not unwelcome result," of what Biden said, he added.

"There may be something to the effect that the White House planned Biden's comments on Iran yesterday, to keep the Iranians off balance and honest," one Hill foreign-policy aide said Monday. "What I found interesting was the juxtaposition of Biden's comments with those of Admiral Mullen, who continue to take the cautious perspective of the U.S. military that any preemptive strike would be destabilizing and not helpful to the cause of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Asked about Biden's comments during his own appearance on CBS's Face the Nation, Admiral Mullen cautioned that "any strike on Iran ... could be very destabilizing."

An Israeli strike would be risky for Israel and its U.S. ally, Georgetown's Byman stressed. "Diplomatically," said Byman, it means that "Israel is acting alone." Meanwhile, Iran "can retaliate through Hezbollah among other options" against Israeli and possibly U.S. targets, including in Iraq -- said to be a chief concern of the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno. "Israel would pay that price if it was sure that the operation would succeed," Byman said. "But given military limits, that is uncertain."

Although the vice president is frequently portrayed as lacking message discipline, current and former aides that say on foreign policy, the three-decade veteran of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is deeply knowledgeable. "He knows his brief," one aide said.

Biden's reputation "for not having an internal editor means people give him more slack," the Hill foreign-policy aide said. "It's part of his charm as well as a liability. You get the straight-up deal with him. He's not a good liar. He says what's on his mind. In some cases, that's helpful, particularly with foreign leaders."

Biden was recently asked by President Obama to lead administration efforts on Iraq, where he made a surprise visit last week. The vice president is scheduled to travel to Georgia and Ukraine later this month to signal the U.S. commitment to their independence from Moscow.

Aides say that Biden and Obama have different styles, but share highly compatible views on foreign policy and national security.

"Here is the thing," one White House official said. "While polar opposites stylistically, there were no two candidates in Democratic primary who were closer on the issues. That speech -- 'I don't oppose all wars, just [dumb] wars' -- that's Biden. He has no problem with going to war," when necessary, the official said.

Biden is seen as a "muscular Democrat, because he was a leading proponent of taking action in the Balkans," a person familiar with his thinking said on condition of anonymity. "Which is ironic, because he originally ran for his Senate office against the Vietnam war." He does not consider himself a "Scoop Jackson Democrat," as some in Democratic foreign-policy circles locate him.

At times in recent weeks, the vice president was reported to have been more forward-leaning in internal discussions about how much support the administration should express for Iranians protesting disputed elections results. In a Meet the Press interview two days after Iran's disputed elections, Biden went further than the administration had previously and said he "had doubts" that the vote count was fair. But as events moved quickly on the ground in Iran, the White House began to use increasingly strong language to condemn the Iranian regime's crackdown on demonstrators, while trying to preserve its efforts to pursue engagement with Iran.

Biden downplayed any such rift in the interview with Stephanopoulos Sunday, while reiterating the administration's singular message to Iran. "Look, the Iranian government has a choice," Biden said. "They either choose greater isolation ...or they decide to take a rightful place in the civilized, big, great nations ... And so the ball's in their court."

"They are still working to engage," CSIS's Alterman said of the Obama administration. "But the Iranians are concerned that any engagement will expose how much weaker Iran is than the United States."

Khalid Mohammed-Pool/Getty Images

The Cable

Names: NEA, Brookings, NSC, Iraq, Syria

NEA:

Although hiring in the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs is on hold until the nominee to be assistant secretary, Jeffrey Feltman, is confirmed, several people are lined up for key positions.

Ronald Schlicher, a career Foreign Service officer who previously served as the consul general in Jerusalem, is expected to be named principal deputy assistant secretary of state, diplomatic and Washington Middle East hands say. The Brookings Institution's Tamara Cofman Wittes is a candidate to be the deputy assistant secretary who oversees Middle East democracy issues. The job, which was previously held by Liz Cheney and J. Scott Carpenter, has been fashioned to focus on "Arab reform." Wittes declined to comment, and Schlicher couldn't immediately be reached.

Feltman's nomination, the subject of a hold by Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) seeking State Department action on a Libya compensation claim related matter, is expected to be resolved as early as next week, when Congress comes back from its July 4 recess. Neither he nor Levin's office would comment.

Brookings:

Because Brookings' director of Foreign Policy Studies, Carlos Pascual, has been nominated to be Obama's ambassador to Mexico, some shuffles are expected at the think tank. As previously reported, Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and current director of Brookings' Saban Center for Middle East Policy, is expected to succeed Pascual. Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst, is expected to be named director of the Saban Center. (He didn't respond to a query.)

NSC:

Mary Carlin Yates, a senior Foreign Service officer who has been serving as the deputy to the commander for civil-military activities of U.S. Africa Command, has departed that job. A source close to the NSC says she has joined the NSC as a senior advisor on strategic planning. The White House did not immediately respond to a query.

Iraq Big Guns: Veep Biden unofficial Iraq envoy

When The Cable reported last week on the much-anticipated official announcement of Dennis Ross's move to the NSC, we noted that one influence for shifting the Iraq portfolio from Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the holdover war czar, to Puneet Talwar, the NSC's senior director for Iran, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf, was Talwar's former boss on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: Joseph Biden, now the vice president.

Administration sources tell us that Talwar wanted the portfolio and Biden intervened at the 11th hour on his behalf. Now, Newsweek reports that Biden himself has been handed the Iraq portfolio by President Barack Obama. "President Obama has asked Biden to take the lead role on Iraq as the U.S. begins its scheduled drawdown of combat troops, a move that comes as administration officials are expressing concerns about the uptick in violence and political instability in the region," the magazine reports. "Biden's role will be something of an unofficial envoy to Iraq, though he won't handle day-to-day dealings with officials on the ground. The goal is to 'raise the level' in hopes that Biden's stature encourages Iraqi officials to bridge their political differences."

One possible rationale for Biden being asked to take on the portfolio? The White House has taken some criticism, including from the military side, that it is not paying enough attention to Iraq issues in a crucial year.

Syria ambassador:

We hear two names are in the running, neither of whom could immediately be reached: Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, and Jake Walles, currently serving as the U.S. consul general in Jerusalem.

Under secretary of economics:

Multiple Washington foreign-policy hands say Robert Hormats is in line to be nominated as the State Department's under secretary of economics, business, and agricultural affairs. Hormats, who has held a variety of State Department jobs in the past, is currently vice chairman of Goldman Sachs (International) and managing director of Goldman, Sachs & Co. He is also a member of the editorial board of Foreign Policy.

Private sector:

Former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns has joined the Cohen Group, a business consulting and government relations firm. Former Defense Secretary William Cohen made the announcement himself Monday night at a dinner in honor of the new Indian ambassador to Washington, saying Burns would be helping lead the group's new India practice. Burns, who has been teaching at the Harvard Kennedy School since retiring from the State Department in 2008, is also a member of the board of the Center for a New American Security, the plugged-in D.C. think tank. Burns has been speaking out in support of Obama's Iran policy at recent events and in television appearances. Burns will also become the director of the Aspen Strategy Group.