WASHINGTON – Israel is free to do whatever it deems necessary to remove the Iranian nuclear threat, US Vice President Joe Biden said Sunday.
In an interview with ABC's 'This Week with George Stephanopoulos,' Biden said "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.
As for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's approach, according to which Israel would "give until the end of the year for this whole process of engagement (with Iran) to work before taking matters into its own hands," Biden said "they're entitled to do that. Any sovereign nation is entitled to do that. But there is no pressure from any nation that's going to alter our behavior as to how to proceed. "
However, the vice president did add that "what we believe (pursuing diplomatic options regarding Iran) is in the national interest of the United States, which we, coincidentally, believe is also in the interest of Israel and the whole world. And so there are separate issues.
"If the Netanyahu government decides to take a course of action different than the one being pursued now, that is their sovereign right to do that. That is not our choice," he said.
Asked by Stephanopoulos whether the US would stand in the way of an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities by denying "over-flight rights in Iraq," Biden said " I'm not going to speculate, George, on those issues, other than to say Israel has a right to determine what's in its interests, and we have a right and we will determine what's in our interests."
CIA Director Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen had reportedly visited Israel in recent months and expressed their strong opposition to a military strike on Iran.
Biden, who was a long-time member of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, hinted during the interview that the Obama administration was prepared to toughen its stance on Iran.
He said that while the US' offer of engagement was still on the table, Washington would not accept Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's demand for more concessions ahead of possible negotiations on Tehran's nuclear program.
Biden's comments were made ahead of Obama's scheduled visit to Moscow for meetings with senior
government officials and then to Italy for the Group of Eight (G8) summit, where the prospect of tightening sanctions on Iran is expected to be raised.
Washington has suspended its efforts to hold direct talks with Iran and is now focusing on discussing Tehran's nuclear program through the P-5 (five Security Council members plus Germany).
"If they choose to meet with the P5, under the conditions the P5 has laid out, it means they begin to change course," Biden said.
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."
Associated Press contributed to the report