U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Wednesday that Iran must either negotiate acceptable limits on its nuclear program or face the possibility of U.S. military action to stop it from getting the bomb.
Panetta made his remarks outside the city of Ashkelon in southern Israel, with an "Iron Dome" anti-rocket defense system as a backdrop.
The Pentagon chief said repeatedly that "all options," including military force, are on the table to stop Iran, should sanctions and diplomacy — the preferred means of persuasion — ultimately fail.
He said he still hopes Iran will see that negotiations are the best way out of this crisis.
However, Panetta said, "If they continue and if they proceed with a nuclear weapon ... we have options that we are prepared to implement to ensure that that does not happen."
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, standing beside Panetta, said he sees an "extremely low" probability that sanctions will ever compel Iran to give up its nuclear activities. On Tuesday night, President Barack Obama approved new sanctions against foreign banks that help Iran sell its oil and Congress agreed on new legislation, which could be passed as soon as this week, to include further sanctions.
Barak said Israel "has something to lose" by waiting for sanctions and diplomacy to run their course because Iran is continually accumulating enriched uranium as the key ingredient for a nuclear bomb.
In greeting Panetta Wednesday at Israeli defense headquarters, Barak said, "The defense ties between Israel and the United States are stronger and tighter than they have ever been and the credit now has to go, most of it, to you, Leon."
Panetta responded: "We are a friend, we are a partner, we have, as the defense minister has pointed out, probably the strongest U.S.-Israel defense relationship that we have had in history. What we are doing, working together, is an indication not only of our friendship but of our alliance to work together to try to preserve peace in the future."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was also set to meet Panetta on Wednesday, told Israeli media on Tuesday that he has yet to decide whether to order a military strike against Iran's nuclear installations. In a series of interviews to Israel's television stations, the prime minister responded to reports that the heads of Israel's security services oppose such a strike, saying: "In Israeli democracy, just like in any democracy, the political echelon makes the decisions and the professional echelon carries them out. I still haven't decided."
The prime minister's comments refused to comment on statements attributed to Israel Defense Forces Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, Israel Security Agency chief Yoram Cohen and Mossad chief Tamir Pardo regarding their stance on a military strike against Iran, explaining that, "this discussion is irresponsible and harms the security of the state."
Netanyahu said that the officials express their opinions to him in the proper forum. "I hear their evaluations behind closed doors," he said. "The media debate, which purports to reflect their alleged positions on the matter is irresponsible and is detrimental to state security. Appropriate discussions on such sensitive matters are held in private and there are many aspects that don't even reach [the public]; the external debate is extremely inappropriate and very superficial."
In order to illustrate that even in critical times, the defense establishment's position isn't always accepted, Netanyahu recalled how "Prime Minister [Menachem] Begin decided in 1981 to bomb the Iraqi nuclear reactor. Others in the defense establishment at the time, including the military intelligence and Mossad chiefs, were vehemently opposed to the decision, but the political echelon made the decision because it sees the complete picture and the responsibility is ultimately on its shoulders. This is true today as well. The decision that will be made, whatever it is, belongs to the political echelon. I will not allow a nuclear-armed Iran. The regime of the ayatollah is making bombs to destroy us! To the extent that it's up to me, I won't let it happen."
Regarding the pressure placed on Iran by the international community, Netanyahu said only the final outcome is relevant. "I'll be very happy if the international community does the job in Iran, but when looking at the results, despite all the pressure that really is hurting Iran's economy, it still hasn't abandoned its nuclear program. A basic principle of the State of Israel is that we don't put matters pertaining to our existence and fate in the hands of others … not even in the hands of our best friends. Mitt Romney as well as [U.S. President] Barack Obama have said that Israel has the right to protect itself against any threat, and it's clear that we can make these decisions for ourselves."
Chief of Staff Gantz, meanwhile, denied the reports on Tuesday that he was against a military strike against Iran. "The comments in these reports weren't made by me, nor were they made on my behalf. Iran continues in its efforts to achieve nuclear weapons capabilities. This is something that we would be wrong to ignore. Iran is the only country in the world that calls for the destruction of another country — Israel. The IDF is prepared and willing to act, and as far as we're concerned, saying that "all options are on the table" isn't just a slogan, it’s a battle plan."
According to a senior Israeli security official, there are gaps between the U.S. and Israel's position about when Iran's nuclear facilities will enter the "immunity zone," referring to the point they will be fortified against any military strike. Israel is trying to convince the U.S. that time is running short, that talks with Iran must be concluded and viable threats of a military strike must be made.
Panetta's visit follows a series of high-profile visits to Israel by administration officials and from the U.S. defense establishment. In July alone, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon were among the visitors.
Obama approves new sanctions on foreign banks assisting Iran
While negotiations between the West and Iran have faltered, the U.S. is continuing to apply pressure on Iran. On Tuesday night, President Obama approved new sanctions against foreign banks that help Iran sell its oil while Congress agreed on new legislation, which could be passed as soon as this week, to include further sanctions.
"If the Iranian government continues its defiance, there should be no doubt that the United States and our partners will continue to impose increasing consequences," Obama said.
If passed, the sanctions would add further pressure on top of penalties imposed by the U.S. and European Union earlier this year on countries that fail to slash purchases of Iranian oil.
"The expanded energy sanctions contained in this critical legislation effectively blacklist the Iranian energy sector and anyone doing business with it," Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement.
"Unless (Iranian leaders) come clean on their nuclear program, end the suppression of their people, and stop supporting terrorist activities, they will face deepening international isolation and even greater economic and diplomatic pressure," Tim Johnson, Democratic chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, said in a statement.
Johnson said the bill included new sanctions on sales of any goods or services to Iran's oil and gas sector, including insurance and reinsurance, and would hurt Iran's ability to do barter trades or oil-for-gold swaps to sell its oil cargoes.
Senate and House leaders have said they would like to pass the sanctions by the end of the week, when lawmakers are set to leave for an extended recess. But votes have not yet been scheduled and could still get caught up in partisan wrangling.
Despite the tightening sanctions, however, a new Israel Project opinion poll released on Tuesday found that 67 percent of Americans feel that sanctions will not prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Defense Department has reportedly told Congress that within the past two months it has signed arms deals with Gulf countries, among them Qatar and Kuwait, worth upwards of $11.3 billion. Both countries are known as U.S. allies in the region against Iran.