U.S. Wants Iran to Know It Can Be Attacked

Former U.S. UN envoy brings Iran's nuclear program back to the center of Israel's diplomatic attention.

Iran's nuclear program has been restored to prominence on the American-Israeli diplomatic agenda. After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu adopted the "two states for two peoples" formula on the Palestinian issue, American recompense came in the form of Vice President Joe Biden's statement that Israel, as a "sovereign nation," will decide for itself how to deal with Iran.

George Stephanopoulos, the ABC television presenter to whom Biden made this remark, thrice asked him how the U.S. would respond if Netanyahu took independent action on Iran. Biden did not hesitate. The U.S., he said, "cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do" if they feel threatened by another country.

That is almost exactly what Condoleezza Rice, former president George W. Bush's secretary of state, said when asked the same question a year ago. However, Biden declined to say whether the U.S. would allow Israel to overfly Iraq en route to Iran.

Biden's words should not be understood as American permission for Israel to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. Rather, they were a veiled warning to Iran that if it does not embark on a serious dialogue with President Barack Obama's administration, it is liable to be attacked.

An Israeli government source said Biden's statement was not coordinated with Israel. But it clearly serves Netanyahu, who sees halting Iran's nuclear program as a historic mission.

In recent weeks, Israel's diplomatic attention has been diverted from Iran to Washington's demand for a settlement freeze. The person who returned Iran to center stage is John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who has become the Republican Party's leading spokesman on foreign affairs. In an article published in The Washington Post last week, Bolton said an Israeli attack is now the only way to halt Iran's nuclear program.

Netanyahu, in contrast, has lowered his profile on Iran and stopped warning of a "second Holocaust" if Iran obtains nuclear weapons. Instead, he has adopted his predecessors' policy of working behind the scenes to send the message that Israel's patience has limits. This message has been conveyed in various ways: the passage of an Israeli nuclear submarine through the Suez Canal, with Egyptian consent, thus bringing it closer to Iran; ambassador-designate to Washington Michael Oren's statement this weekend that a nuclear Iran could "wipe Israel off the map" in an instant; and the leak (swiftly denied) to the Sunday Times that Saudi Arabia had agreed to let Israel Air Force jets overfly it en route to attacking Iran.

Israeli officials argue that Iran's apparently fraudulent election and its brutal suppression of the subsequent demonstrations reveal the pointlessness of talking with Tehran and the need for stiffer sanctions. The statements of the last few days are meant to bolster this message with hints of possible military action.