WASHINGTON — Vice President Joe Biden signaled that the Obama administration would not stand in the way if Israel chose to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, even as the top U.S. military officer said any attack on Iran would be destabilizing.
Biden's remarks suggested a tougher U.S. stance against Iran's nuclear ambitions. Nonetheless, administration officials insisted his televised remarks Sunday reflected the U.S. view that Israel has a right to defend itself and make its own decisions on national security.
In an interview on ABC's "This Week," Biden also said the U.S. offer to negotiate with Tehran on its nuclear program still stands. Some thought the administration's approach might change in light of the Iranian government's harsh crackdown on protesters after the June 12 presidential election. Opponents of the ruling authorities claimed the vote was rigged against them.
"If the Iranians respond to the offer of engagement, we will engage," Biden said.
Biden was asked whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was taking the right approach by indicating that Israel would take matters into its own hands if Iran did not show a willingness to negotiate by the end of the year.
"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," Biden replied. He added that this was the case, "whether we agree or not" with the Israeli view.
Biden was then asked more pointedly whether the U.S. would stand in the way if the Israelis, viewing the prospect of an Iranian nuclear bomb as a threat to the existence of the Jewish state, decided to launch a military attack against Iranian nuclear facilities.
"Look, we cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do," he said.
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday that he has been "for some time concerned about any strike on Iran." He also said military action should not be ruled out and that a nuclear-armed Iran is a highly troubling prospect.
In Jerusalem, the Israeli government had no comment on Biden's remarks.
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Biden was not signaling any change of approach on Iran or Israel.
"The vice president refused to engage hypotheticals, and he made clear that our policy has not changed," Vietor said. "Our friends and allies, including Israel, know that the president believes that now is the time to explore direct diplomatic options."
The Netanyahu government says it prefers to see Iran's nuclear program stopped through diplomacy but has not ruled out a military strike.
The New York Times reported in January, shortly before Obama took office, that President George W. Bush had deflected an Israeli request in 2008 for specialized U.S. bombs that it would use for an airstrike on Iran's main nuclear complex at Natanz. And it reported that Bush was persuaded by aides, including his defense chief, Robert Gates, that a U.S. strike on Iran would probably be ineffective.