‘Window Is Still Open” to Avoid Iran Strike, Panetta Says

The “window is still open” for diplomacy to resolve the dispute with Iran over its nuclear program, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said.

Panetta’s remarks to reporters today at the Pentagon follows comments from Israeli officials that time has about run out to avert military strikes. Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, wrote August 7 in the Wall Street Journal that the window of opportunity for negotiations “is now almost shut.”

Panetta said he thinks Israel hasn’t made a decision “at this time” to attack Iranian nuclear sites, and that international sanctions are increasing pressure on Iran to make concessions.

The negotiations essentially have stalled as global powers, led by the European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, await signs of movement from Iran before agreeing to a new round of high-level talks. Iran is the No. 3 oil producer in OPEC, following Saudi Arabia and Iraq, according to data for July compiled by Bloomberg.

“From our point of view, the window is still open to try to work toward a diplomatic solution,” Panetta said.

Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported Aug. 10 that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are considering a strike on Iran before U.S. elections on Nov. 6. Iranian officials have said any attack against the country’s nuclear program would trigger retaliation. The U.S. and Israel say Iran is working toward being able to produce nuclear bombs and should give up some or all of its enrichment equipment and uranium stockpiles.

Immunity Zone

Israeli officials say there is time pressure to act because of Iran’s growing capabilities at its Fordo enrichment facility, whose location deep under a mountain near the holy city of Qom makes it difficult to destroy with the weapons. Iran is approaching within months a “zone of immunity,” Barak has said.

Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at the Pentagon news conference today that an Israeli strike on Iran “could delay but not destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities,” based on his review of Israel’s military arsenal.

That arsenal includes non-stealthy F-16 and F-15 fighter jets and an unspecified number of large, deep-penetrating, U.S.- supplied GBU-28, 5,000-pound bunker-buster bombs.

Panetta said in November 2011 that 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 Opinion

Israeli public support for a military strike is growing as the government steps up its rhetoric on Iran.

Netanyahu said on Aug. 12 that the Iranian threat “dwarfs” all others. On the same day, Israel’s Home Front Command announced it was testing a nationwide text-messaging system to alert the public to incoming missiles.

About 46 percent of Israelis now oppose a strike on Iran without U.S. support, down from 58 percent in March, according to a poll by the Dialog Institute reported on Channel 10 on Aug. 12.

A poll in the daily Ma’ariv on Aug. 10 found that 35 percent believed that Israel should attack Iran alone if necessary, compared with 19 percent in a July 20 poll. All the polls had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.

Nuclear talks with Iran resumed in Istanbul in April after an interval of more than a year. The last high-level discussions involving members of the so-called P5+1 -- U.K., U.S., China, Russia, France and Germany -- were held in Moscow in June.

The gap remains wide, a U.S. official said Aug. 2, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks were private. Ashton delivered a tough message to Iranian negotiator Saeed Jalili, the official said by e-mail.

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