His comments came amid deepening concern that Israel could launch a unilateral strike on Iran, and as Congress passed a new sanctions bill on Wednesday aimed at banks, insurance companies and shippers that assist Iran in selling its oil. There have been a series of visits to Israel by senior Obama administration officials, who are pressing the Israelis to give economic sanctions more time to persuade the Iranians to give up their nuclear ambitions.
Panetta described the recently imposed economic sanctions as “the toughest Iran has ever faced” and insisted that they are working. “The most effective way to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is for the international community to be united, proving to Iran that it will only make itself less secure if it continues to try to pursue a nuclear weapon,” he said.
The defense secretary’s statements also came as presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is making the Obama administration’s policy toward Iran a campaign issue. While visiting Israel this week, Romney used sharp language, saying that “any and all measures” should be considered to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Panetta appeared with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak at a jointly funded U.S.-Israeli anti-rocket battery in southern Israel and then met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. But even as Panetta emphasized the Obama administration’s deep opposition to Iran’s nuclear program and the United States’ close partnership with Israel, the differences in the American and Israeli views on the need for urgent military action were clear.
Barak told reporters that the likelihood of sanctions curbing Iranian nuclear ambitions is “very, extremely low” and suggested that the Iranians are stalling for time as they move quickly to enrich the uranium they would need for a nuclear weapon.
“We have clearly something to lose by this stretch of time on which sanctions and diplomacy take place because the Iranians are moving forward,” he said, standing next to Panetta.
Netanyahu reiterated that message after his meeting with Panetta. “However forceful our statements, they have not convinced Iran that we are serious about stopping them,” Netanyahu said. “Right now, the Iranian regime believes that the international community does not have the will to stop its nuclear program. This must change quickly, because the time to resolve this issue peacefully is running out.”
In remarks that appeared designed to increase pressure on the Iranians and reassure the Israelis, Panetta said repeatedly that the United States has developed military options to thwart the Iranian nuclear program if sanctions fail.