WASHINGTON — President Obama, issuing an unusual clarification of his vice president's words, said Tuesday that his administration had "absolutely not" given its blessing for an Israeli attack on Iran.
Obama said that although Israel had the right to defend itself, U.S. officials had emphasized the need to avoid "major conflict in the Middle East."
Vice President Joe Biden created a stir Sunday by suggesting the U.S. would stand aside if Israel wanted to attack.
"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 said on ABC's "This Week."
Biden's words set off a debate over whether the White House was hardening its line on Iran or whether Biden had simply committed a gaffe.
Asked in a CNN interview Tuesday whether the U.S. was giving Israel "a green light" to launch a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear sites, Obama replied, "Absolutely not," adding that Biden was merely stating "a categorical fact, which is that we can't dictate to other countries what their security interests are."
But Biden left out another part of the administration's usual formulation: that the U.S. wants to avoid a military strike because it could destabilize the entire Middle East.
Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed his own concern about a strike.
"I worry a great deal about the response of a country that gets struck," Mullen said Tuesday in remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "How does it end up? Does it get contained, or does it expand?"
Obama's remarks weren't the first time that administration officials have clarified comments by Biden that varied from the official line. In April, White House officials sought to explain that they were not recommending that the public avoid airplanes and subways, even though Biden said that he would not want family members to use them, because of the threat of swine flu.
Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes in Washington contributed to this report.