- By Region
Leon Panetta, the US secretary of defence, tried to allay rising concern among Israeli leaders over Iran’s nuclear programme, insisting on Wednesday that the US “will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, period”.
However, Mr Panetta also made clear that the US would only contemplate military strikes against Iranian nuclear installations as a last resort – and suggested that there was still time for sanctions and diplomacy to work.
“We have to exhaust every option, every effort before we resort to military action, and that is important,” he said during a visit to Israel.
Mr Panetta’s message offered a marked contrast to the more urgent tone struck by senior Israeli leaders, suggesting that the US and Israel have yet to resolve subtle but significant differences over Iran.
Officials and analysts say the two sides agree in their analysis of how far Iran’s nuclear programme has progressed but differ in their assessment of how much time is left to resolve the stand-off through diplomacy and sanctions.
That difference reflects an apparent gap in how far either side is willing to let the Iranian programme proceed: while US officials habitually speak of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, Israeli leaders say they are determined to stop Tehran from even attaining nuclear weapon “capability”.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, told Mr Panetta on Wednesday that the time to stop Iran’s nuclear programme was “running out”. He said: “Neither sanctions nor diplomacy have yet had any impact on Iran’s nuclear weapons programme … However forceful our statements, they have not convinced Iran that we are serious about stopping them.”
He added: “Right now the Iranian regime believes that the international community does not have the will to stop its nuclear programme. This must change and it must change quickly because time to resolve this issue is running out.”
Speaking earlier in the day, Ehud Barak, Israel’s defence minister, said he believed there was only an “extremely low” probability that sanctions and diplomacy alone could halt Iran’s nuclear programme.
Mr Panetta’s visit to Israel is widely seen as part of a long-running US effort to dissuade Israeli leaders from launching air strikes against Iran. US concerns over an Israeli raid have been heightened by Mr Barak’s repeated assertion that Iran’s nuclear programme is about to enter a “zone of immunity” – in which it can no longer be destroyed by outside military intervention.
The US defence secretary’s trip followed a visit to Israel this week by Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate. Mr Romney made hawkish statements about Iran during his visit, suggesting that he would take a harder line – closer to that of the current Israeli government – should he be elected US president in November. Echoing Israeli rhetoric and defying the current US position, the Republican contender spoke repeatedly of the need to stop Iran from developing “nuclear weapons capability”.