Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived today in Tunisia at the start of a five-day trip to the Mideast region, where tensions are rising over the democratic transition in Egypt, turmoil in Syria and Iran’s suspected advances toward nuclear weapons.
His trip to Tunisia, Egypt, Israel and Jordan has a security agenda, including new concerns about Syrian chemical weapons, along with election-season political stakes. Panetta is scheduled to arrive in Israel on the heels of a visit by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who has appealed to Jewish voters by attacking President Barack Obama as lacking sufficient commitment to Israel’s security.
“With Israel, we have achieved a level of defense cooperation that is unprecedented in our history and my goal is to deepen and strengthen that relationship even further,” Panetta said to reporters aboard his plane.
One public source of tension between the Obama administration and Israeli leaders involves the urgency of military strikes against Iran’s nuclear sites. While the U.S. and Israel both say they suspect Iran is covertly seeking nuclear-weapons capabilities through uranium enrichment and other activities, the two allies have disagreed openly about how much time to give economic sanctions and negotiations to persuade Iran to give up much its nuclear program.
With a lack of progress in the negotiations, “the clocks in Washington and Tel Aviv are out of sync” on the timing for military action, said David Makovsky, a Middle East specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The Obama administration’s strategy is to see if Iran backs down as international sanctions increasingly hurt its economy, saying there is time for military action as a last alternative.
In February, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned that the Jewish state would need to act militarily within months, before Iran reaches a “zone of immunity” where its underground enrichment facilities would be invulnerable to Israeli air strikes. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful, for generating electricity and medical purposes.
One of Panetta’s goals in Israel may be seeking to ensure that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t mount a military strike before the U.S. presidential election, Makovsky said.
Panetta told reporters that the Israelis have “not made any decisions on Iran and continue to support the international effort to bring pressure on Iran to pull back from their effort to develop a nuclear capability.”
Panetta, 74, may have to “reassure Israel that the U.S. will take care of the Iran situation, especially if Obama is elected to a second term,” said Yehuda Ben Meir, a principal research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.
Panetta’s visit to Israel follows trips there this month by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns. An Israeli official denied a report in the daily Haaretz today that said Donilon briefed Netanyahu on U.S. plans for a possible strike Iran’s nuclear program. The Israel official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Speaking in Israel, Romney said he recognizes Israel’s right to defend itself “and that it is right for America to stand with you.”
Panetta, while saying he wouldn’t comment on remarks by political candidates, said of Israel, “As the president has made clear, we respect their sovereignty and their ability to make decisions on their security. But at the same time, we have developed a very close partnership with regards to dealing with threats in the region including dealing with Iran.”
Panetta will meet with his Israeli defense counterpart, Barak, for the ninth time in a year, a U.S. defense official said. He will meet Netanyahu for the third time since becoming defense secretary in July 2011, according to the official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity.
The meetings are “all part of keeping Israel on our side” and ensuring that its leaders don’t “come to a different conclusion about the Iranian nuclear program,” said Richard Armitage, a U.S. deputy secretary of state under President George W. Bush and currently president of Armitage International, an Arlington, Virginia-based consulting firm.
In advance of Romney’s arrival in Israel, Obama sought to counter Republican criticism as he signed legislation July 27 to bolster U.S. military cooperation. Obama highlighted the release of $70 million for the Iron Dome missile-defense system, which protects Israeli from short-range rockets.
“I have made it a top priority for my administration to deepen cooperation with Israel across the whole spectrum of security issues, intelligence, military, technology,” he said at the White House.
Israel’s preoccupation with stopping Iran’s nuclear program is now rivaled by a second security peril -- that the chaos in Syria may enable Islamic militants from Lebanon’s Hezbollah or other groups to obtain Syrian chemical weapons for use against the Jewish state.
The U.S., Israel and Jordan have been coordinating efforts to monitor those stockpiles of sarin and VX nerve gas and to plan actions if there is a security breach. Netanyahu said July 22 that he doesn’t rule out Israeli action to prevent such weapons from being acquired by militants amid a collapse of the Assad regime.
“We have been in very close consultations with the Jordanians, Turkey and other allies in the region to ensure that we are closely monitoring the situation with regards to those chemical weapons,” Panetta said.
At his first stop, the defense secretary will sketch out a future for U.S.-Tunisia military ties, the U.S. defense official said. The two countries meet annually through the U.S.-Tunisian Joint Military Commission to discuss cooperation, Tunisia’s defense modernization and training, according to the State Department. More than 3,000 Tunisian military officers and technicians have received training in U.S. military schools in the past two decades, according to the Defense Department.
In Egypt, Panetta will meet with Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the country’s military chief, and newly elected President Mohamed Mursi, the U.S. defense official said.
During the revolt that led to the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak last year, Panetta was in regular contact with Tantawi as the U.S. pressured the military not to crush the pro-democracy protests. Panetta will encourage the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which Tantawi leads, to support transition to civilian rule, the official said.