U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said all possible means must be tried before a military strike against Iran and that the U.S. is prepared to use force if needed to stop the Iranian development of an atomic bomb.
“We have to exhaust every option, every effort before we resort to military action and that’s important,” Panetta said while visiting an anti-missile battery in Ashkelon, southern Israel. Still, “if they continue and make the decision to proceed with a nuclear weapon, we have options we are prepared to implement to ensure that does not happen.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed doubts that Iran will back down quickly and said time “is running out” for a peaceful solution.
Their comments today showed that U.S. and Israel continue to disagree about what constitutes grounds for a military strike, said Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. For Israel “it’s not a decision by Iran that matters because that may not be knowable, but it’s Iranian capability,” Steinberg said.
While the U.S. and Israel both suspect that 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 try and persuade Iran to give up its nuclear program. Iran has denied it aims to build nuclear weapons.
Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Panetta today that even if sanctions were to cripple Iran’s economy they wouldn’t slow down the country’s nuclear program.
Expanded sanctions announced yesterday by President Barack Obama “will have an even greater impact on Iran’s economy” than previous rounds, Netanyahu told Panetta at a meeting in Jerusalem today. “But unfortunately it is also true that neither sanctions nor diplomacy have yet had any impact on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”
Iran believes that “the international community does not have the will to stop its nuclear program. This must change, and it must change quickly because time to resolve this issue peacefully is running out,” Netanyahu told Panetta.
Barak said that while talks and sanctions may have some impact, they will give Iran more time to proceed with uranium enrichment.
“We in Israel see the probability that it will lead the ayatollahs to gather around a table, look at each other and tell each other that ‘we have to give up the nuclear program,’ the probability of that is extremely low,” Barak said at a press conference with Panetta.
Barak in February warned that Israel 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.
Under pressure from Israel as well as from the U.S., where Obama’s Republican rival Mitt Romney is accusing the president of being weak on Israel’s security, the Obama administration appears to have stepped up talk of military options against Iran, said Steinberg in a phone interview.
“There’s a more consistent message out of Washington for the potential for military action after all options have been exhausted,” Steinberg said. The increased number of U.S. officials visiting Israel in recent weeks and statements from both sides “indicate that Israeli and U.S. officials agree that sanctions impact is moving slowly,” he said.
Still, Panetta’s statement that the U.S. would take military action if the Iranians decide to proceed with a nuclear weapon reflects the differences between Israeli and American officials on what constitutes a red line, Steinberg said.
The U.S. position was summarized by James Clapper, director of national intelligence, in February congressional testimony when he said, “We assess Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons, in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so.” Clapper went on to say, “We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”
“That’s a point of friction that has continued for two years,” Steinberg said. Although the differences “have not been fully bridged” the U.S. has taken actions including positioning two aircraft carriers in the region to show military strength, he said.
Panetta’s visit to Israel follows trips here this month by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns.
Panetta said the Obama administration would continue to seek funds to bolster Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defense system noting that the U.S. has provided $270 million toward the system including $70 million that Obama authorized last week.
He spoke at an Iron Dome site about five miles from the Gaza Strip, from where rocket and mortar attacks are launched against Israel.
The last such rocket attack was five weeks ago on a Saturday at about 9 p.m., and the system successfully intercepted the rockets, Colonel Zvika Haimovich told reporters. The system has an 80 percent success rate in intercepting short-range rockets, Barak said.
The Pentagon also has agreed to allow “a package of enhancements” to the fleet of Lockheed Martin Corp.-made F-35 jets that Israel is buying so that the Jewish state has “unquestioned air superiority,” Panetta said. Measures like the Iron Dome and F-35 give Israel a “qualitative military edge,” he said.