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, but administration officials denied that. Instead, White House officials said, his televised remarks Sunday simply reflected the U.S. view that Israel had 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 stood. 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 contend the vote was rigged in favor of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"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 whether the U.S. would stand in the way if the Israelis 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.
Reminded that the U.S. could impede an Israeli strike on Iran by prohibiting it from using Iraqi airspace, Biden said he was "not going to speculate" beyond saying that Israel, like the U.S., has a right to "determine what is in its interests."
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."
Also Sunday, Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he had been "for some time concerned about any strike on Iran." He also said that military action should not be ruled out and that a nuclear-armed Iran was a highly troubling prospect.
Mullen said he worried about unpredictable consequences of an attack on Iran.
"I worry about it being very destabilizing not just in and of itself but the unintended consequences of a strike like that," he told CBS' "Face the Nation." "At the same time, I'm one that thinks Iran should not have nuclear weapons. I think that's very destabilizing."
Mullen said if Iran obtained a nuclear weapon, other countries in the Middle East could follow suit. That would open the door to a destabilizing proliferation of nuclear technology, Mullen said, adding that he discusses the subject regularly with his Israeli counterpart.
Most experts think that wiping out Iran's nuclear program is beyond Israel's ability: Iran's facilities are scattered around the country.