Panetta: Red Lines Are Political Arguments

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta sides with Obama, reject Israel's demand of "red lines" for Iran.

Elad Benari ,

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta joined President Barack Obama on the weekend and dismissed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s demand that the Americans set “red lines” for Iran regarding its nuclear program.

“The fact is, look, presidents of the United States, prime ministers of Israel or any other country -- leaders of these countries don't have, you know, a bunch of little red lines that determine their decisions,” Panetta said during an interview with the Foreign Policy magazine.

“What they have are facts that are presented to them about what a country is up to, and then they weigh what kind of action is needed to be taken in order to deal with that situation,” he added. “I mean, that's the real world. Red lines are kind of political arguments that are used to try to put people in a corner.”

He insisted the U.S. would not allow Iran obtain a nuclear weapon and repeated intelligence estimates that Tehran had not yet decided to pursue a weapon despite its continued uranium enrichment.

"Let's just say, when you have friends like Israel you engage in vigorous debates about how you confront these issues, and that's what's going on," he said.

"It sometimes, in democracies, plays out in the public," added Panetta.

Panetta's comments were made a day after a senior administration official told The New York Times that Obama rejected an appeal by Netanyahu to spell out a specific “red line” that Iran could not cross in its nuclear program.

The rejection came during Obama’s phone conversation with Netanyahu on Tuesday. The official said this deepens the divide between the allies over how to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

According to the official, in the hour long telephone conversation Obama deflected Netanyahu’s proposal to make the size of Iran’s stockpile of close-to-bomb-grade uranium the threshold for a military strike by the United States against its nuclear facilities.

Obama, the official told The New York Times, repeated the assurances he gave to Netanyahu in March that the United States would not allow Iran to manufacture a nuclear weapon. The president was unwilling to agree on any specific action by Iran, like reaching a defined threshold on nuclear material, or failing to adhere to a deadline on negotiations, that would lead to American military action.

During his Foreign Policy interview, Panetta also addressed the recent protests in Cairo and Libya, during which U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, two former Navy SEALs, and a State Department worker were killed.

The Middle East, Panetta told the magazine, is going through "convulsions" after its momentous change in leadership since the eruption of the Arab awakening early last year, on which al-Qaeda and other extremists are trying capitalize, but they do not necessarily reflect a change in regional security.

“We have to be prepared in the event that these demonstrations get out of control,” Panetta said of the military.

He did not say what he believed was behind the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, but he claimed the anti-Islam movie was at the heart of other demonstrations.

“It's something that's under assessment and under investigation, to determine just exactly what happened here,” he said.

Panetta expressed concern that the fall of dictators across the Middle East has left a void for extremist elements to strike from "positions of weakness." 

He acknowledged that al-Qaeda had become seemingly more active in places like Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and across North Africa. But the secretary denied any change from his statement last year that al-Qaeda was nearing "strategic defeat," explaining that he meant the original core elements of the group, not its extensions across the region.

“Clearly al-Qaeda, the al-Qaeda that attacked the United States of America on 9/11, we have gone after in a big way,” said Panetta. "We always knew that we would have to continue to confront elements of extremism elsewhere as well.”