The United States recognizes Israel is a sovereign nation and can make its own security decisions, “but at the same time, we have developed a very close partnership with regards to dealing with threats in the region, … and my goal is to strengthen that partnership,” Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Sunday as he kicked off a regional tour to the Middle East.
“In these next few weeks these will be ratcheting up to a whole new level of impact,” Panetta said of the sanctions on Iran, according to the Defense Department. “It sends a strong message to [the Iranian leadership] that they can’t continue to do what they are doing."
Iranian leaders have a responsibility to sit down and engage in a diplomatic effort to resolve these issues, to end their enrichment process, and to abide by international rules, Panetta said.
There is no daylight between the United States and Israel on Iran, the secretary said. “My view is that when I sit down with my counterpart in Israel, we are unified in our view with regards to Iran,” he said. “We’re unified in the position that they should not obtain a nuclear weapon, [and] we’re unified in our position that we have to bring every bit of pressure on them to change their ways.”
Panetta's visit to Israel later in the week is expected to include discussions on the threat from Iran's nuclear program, and will follow U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney visit there on Sunday.
Earlier on Sunday, a senior aide to Romney staked out a position much more hawkish than the current U.S. administration, forcing a clarification later in the day. “If Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing that [nuclear weapons] capability, the governor would respect that decision,” said Dan Senor, a foreign policy adviser to Romney.
The Romney campaign later put out a statement from Senor which struck a different note, saying that “Gov. Romney recognizes Israel’s right to defend itself”. The statement said that it was necessary to “employ any and all measures” to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
Romney himself was forced to clarify, and balked at repeating that position when asked by CBS' "Face the Nation" program. “I respect the right of Israel to defend itself.” When asked whether he would support a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran, he said: “Because I’m on foreign soil, I don’t want to be creating new foreign policy for my country or in any way to distance myself from the foreign policy of our nation.”
Panetta declined to comment on the Romney aide's remarks but appeared to suggest an Israeli attack was hardly a foregone conclusion.
"With regards to where Israel is right now, my view is that they have not made any decisions with regards to Iran and that they continue to support the international effort to bring pressure against Iran," Panetta said. However, meeting with Romney on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that sanctions had not stopped the Iranian nuclear program "by one iota."
As Romney tries to portray U.S.-Israeli ties as strained, Panetta said there was unprecedented defense cooperation between the two countries.
"I'm proud of the defense partnership that we've built over the past several years. The U.S.-Israel defense relationship, I believe, is stronger today than it has been in the past," he said.
The secretary is scheduled to visit an Israeli Iron Dome anti-missile battery. The United States is providing much of the funding for the program. Panetta said Iron Dome has proven itself and saved lives. “It provide the kind of critical defense that Israel needs in the event that the country faces missiles from some of their enemies in the region,” he said.
Iron Dome defends and protects civilian lives, he stressed. “That’s the kind of emphasis that I think we need to focus on not just now, but in the weeks and months to come,” the secretary said.
The system can provide an effective defense against any enemy in the region, including Hezbollah, from Lebanon and from Iran, Panetta said. “We feel that the more we can support them in building that kind of defense system, the more we can send a clear signal to others that Israel is going to be able to defend itself against such attacks,” he said.
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