U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta confirmed on Thursday that the Pentagon is preparing an array of military options for striking Iran, if hard-hitting diplomatic and economic sanctions fail to persuade Tehran to drop its nuclear ambitions.
In an interview with National Journal, Panetta said such planning had been under way “for a long time,” a reflection of the Obama administration’s mounting concern over Iran’s continued progress towards a nuclear weapon.
Addressing the possibility of Israel launching a pre-emptive military strike against Iran, Panetta said he didn’t believe Israeli leaders had made up their minds about whether to order such a strike.
“As the president himself has said, I don’t believe they’ve made a final decision here,” Panetta said. “I feel confident that they really are seriously weighing all of the ramifications of how best to deal with Iran.”
He added that a unilateral Israeli strike against Iran would be less effective than one conducted by the U.S., which has a significantly larger air force and an array of advanced weapons more powerful than any possessed by the Jewish state.
“If they decided to do it there’s no question that it would have an impact, but I think it’s also clear that if the United States did it we would have a hell of a bigger impact,” Panetta told National Journal.
The comments came one day after Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. was reviewing “possible military options” for an armed intervention into Syria. Asked by National Journal if the Pentagon was conducting similar planning for strikes on Iran, he said, “Absolutely.”
He stressed that the administration didn’t simply believe that Iran’s nuclear push posed a threat to Israel but also to the U.S.
“I think they’re serious about the threat that they view from Iran and its impact on Israel,” Panetta said in the interview. “I think they also understand that we view Iran as a threat to our security as well.”
Earlier this week, Panetta vowed the United States would take military action to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon if diplomacy fails.
"Military action is the last alternative when all else fails," he said at the America Israel Policy Committee conference. "But make no mistake, we will act if we have to."
Earlier on Thursday, the White House denied reports that U.S. President Barack Obama offered Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to give Israel advanced “bunker buster” missiles and long-range planes if Israel agreed not to attack Iran during 2012.
A report in the Ma'ariv newspaper said that Obama made the offer to Netanyahu during their meeting in Washington earlier this week.
The report was based on discussions with diplomatic officials who were privy to the conversation the two leaders held. The diplomats said that Obama had offered a “package deal,” whereby the U.S. would not seek to prevent an Israeli attack in 2013 – after the U.S. presidential election in November. That didn't mean that the U.S. was giving Israel a “green light” for an attack; it was more like a “yellow light,” which perhaps could be interpreted as close to red than green, the diplomats said.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu himself set a general timetable for a possible strike on Iran, for the first time, on Thursday.
Netanyahu said that Israel has not yet made a decision on whether to attack the Iranian nuclear sites. He added that the timing of such a strike "is not a matter of days or weeks," but on the other hand, "it is not a matter of years."