The incident was a startling departure from accepted foreign policy norms. Even as a top US government official visited a close ally, that ally carried out an act of sabotage that could be counterproductive to US foreign policy in the region. The act was Israel’s widely acknowledged (though not officially confirmed) sabotage of Iran’s nuclear-enrichment site at Natanz.
That sabotage, which apparently involved smuggling an explosive device into the facility and detonating it remotely, occurred on a day when US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III was in Israel for conversations with Israeli officials. It came just a few days after both the United States and Iran had expressed cautious optimism about indirect talks in Vienna aimed at easing both back into the multi-country agreement that had constrained Iran’s nuclear activities from 2015 until Donald Trump unwisely abandoned the pact in 2018.
That sabotage put the United States in an awkward position. If the Biden team had foreknowledge of it, then the United States would look complicit. That would obviously freeze the fragile détente emerging between the United States and Iran. But if the US government didn’t know it was about to occur? Then our secretary of defense would be left looking as though he was treated cavalierly — disdainfully, even — by a close ally.
That reality left the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, in an awkward position at her April 12 briefing. The US “was not involved in any manner” in the sabotage, she said, adding that the Biden administration was focused on the talks in Vienna. When another reporter followed up, asking if “there was concern that the actions of an ally are derailing the US efforts,” Psaki was left to dodge and deflect. The impression she left, without explicitly saying as much, was that the Biden administration had not in any way signed off on the sabotage or known about it in advance.
It’s too bad Psaki didn’t add something else that needs to be said: Under the Iran deal that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu staunchly opposed and Trump abandoned, the world could be sure that Iran was keeping to its commitments on uranium enrichment and stockpiles. If the deal were still intact, the parties to it — the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia, plus Germany — could then have negotiated with Iran to lengthen its timelines. But with Trump having taken Netanyahu’s favored approach by ditching the deal and clamping down sanctions on Iran, that nation has unapologetically moved beyond the previous enrichment limits.
As some veteran Netanyahu observers have suggested, it may well be that the embattled old warhorse, who is fighting against corruption charges and for his political life in Israel, thinks a more open conflict with Iran will help him as he struggles to form yet another coalition government after yet another deadlocked election. That could happen if Israel’s action provokes an Iranian response that then causes Israelis to rally around the hawkish Netanyahu because he’s seen as an experienced anti-Iranian hand.
This would hardly be the first time that Netanyahu has rattled the saber against Iran for political effect — or treated an American administration disdainfully. Such was the case when, two weeks before the March 2015 Israeli election, he used a speech to a joint session of the US Congress to inveigh against the nascent nuclear arrangement that the Obama administration was then negotiating with Iran. That was a remarkable breach of protocol, the more so since the terms had not yet been finalized, let alone made public. Obama declined to meet with Netanyahu during that trip to Washington, and though then-Vice President Biden normally would have presided over such a joint session of Congress, he pointedly did not attend.
Netanyahu did not manage to block the deal under Obama. But he later boasted that he was the one who had persuaded Trump to abandon the pact in favor of a so-called maximum pressure campaign. The entire world has now seen that Trump’s effort led exactly nowhere, except to a more dangerous situation in the Middle East, one that makes conflict with Iran more likely.
After some hesitation, Iran has affirmed that it will continue with the Vienna talks on reentering the nuclear deal, which are being conducted through intermediaries. That’s positive news. But given Netanyahu’s inveterate opposition to it, Biden needs to send Israel’s leader an unmistakable message.
To wit: The United States is determined to return to the Iran deal if possible. If Netanyahu somehow manages to derail that US effort, Israel shouldn’t expect the United States to be part of any effort to destroy Iran’s nuclear sites should matters reach that critical point. And further, that if Israel opts for a military solution while the United States is pursuing a diplomatic remedy, it can’t help but strain relations.
The United States can and should help safeguard Israel’s security through diplomacy — but not by joining or enabling military action against Iran. That is simply too much for one obstinate ally to expect of another.
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