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Panetta Says Attack on Iran Would Only Delay Nuclear Program

Nov. 10 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities might delay its alleged nuclear weapons program by only up to three years and he warned of “unintended consequences.”

While a military option must be kept available, it might not result in “really deterring Iran from what they want to do,” he said.

“You’ve got to be careful of unintended consequences here,” Panetta said at a Pentagon press conference. “It could have a serious impact in the region and it could have a serious impact on U.S. forces in the region,” he said of a hypothetical U.S. military strike.

This week’s report by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran’s progress toward nuclear bomb capabilities “raises serious concern that Iran continues to flaunt international rules and standards. As a result of that, it’s very clear additional sanctions have to be applied,” he said.

The IAEA report is “perfectly in line with intelligence assessments,” he said. “We always make the point that they continue to try and develop a threshold capability with regards to their nuclear capacity, but at the same time there continues to be divisions within Iran as to whether or not to actually build a bomb itself.”

“It is important the world come together to apply sanctions and make very clear to them they will play a heavy price if they continue along this track,” Panetta said.

Bombing Impact

Panetta said he “certainly shares” views expressed by predecessor Robert Gates and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen that a bombing campaign would set Iran back three years at most.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Monday in an interview with Israel Radio that Israel “has not yet decided to embark on any operation” against Iran.

The current U.S. intelligence view, classified documents released by WikiLeaks, and intelligence community testimony have raised doubts about the effectiveness of any raids.

Barak, in a June 2, 2009, meeting with U.S. lawmakers, “estimated a window between six and 18 months from now in which stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons might still be viable,” according to a WikiLeaks-released State Department cable.

“After that, any military solution would result in unacceptable collateral damage,” Barak was quoted as saying.

Gates, Mullen

Gates on several occasions, starting in April 2009, said “a military attack will only buy us time and send the program deeper and more covert.” It would at best set back Iran’s nuclear program by two or three years, he said.

U.S. or Israeli bombing also “would bring together a divided nation and make them absolutely committed to obtaining nuclear weapons,” he said.

Mullen in a Feb. 10, 2010, press conference said it was safe to assume “they’re pretty close” to developing a bomb and a strike might “delay it for one to three years.”

Panetta today said he’s seen “no change in the assessments.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Tony Capaccio in Washington at acapaccio@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net; Mark Silva at msilva34@bloomberg.net

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