The key to effective action against Iran's nuclear ambitions can only be close cooperation between allies, United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Friday at Washington's Saban Center for the Middle East. This was a clear message to Israel that it should not consider unilateral action against Iran.
Echoing a similar message he delivered during a recent visit to Israel, Panetta stressed that any military operation against Iran by Israel must be coordinated with the United States and have its backing. "There is always a military option," he said, "but it must be the last resort, not the first."
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Ehud Barak played down speculation that Israel and U.S.-led allies were waging a clandestine war on Iran, saying sanctions and the threat of military strikes were still the way to curb its nuclear program. Barak was asked in an interview whether two explosions in Iran last month showed "the war has already begun" through sabotage.
"I don't think so," he told Channel 2 television. "I think that the answer to your question is negative."
One of last month's explosions in Iran killed at least a dozen members of the Revolutionary Guards, including a general. Iran called it an accident that occurred while weapons were being moved. Iran has suffered from computer viruses in industrial systems and several of its nuclear scientists have been killed or disappeared over the last few years in what Tehran says were Israeli or U.S. covert operations.
Barak neither confirmed nor denied that Israel or Western powers were trying to delay Iran's uranium enrichment and missile programs through sabotage. But his remarks signalled doubt in the long-term efficacy of any such tactics.
"I have nothing to say about the actions themselves. I just say that if you compare the situation eight years ago, or four years ago, to today's situation, the Iranians are much closer to nuclear capability," he said. "Therefore the sanctions have to be intensified, quick, determined ... and therefore everyone is saying that no option should be taken off the table," Barak added.
The defense minister said Israel and the United States were coordinating closely on Iran, which denies seeking nuclear weapons and has vowed to retaliate for any preemptive attack. However, Barak stressed that Israel is sovereign and has the ultimate responsibility for its security.
It is this sort of statement that has Panetta worried because it implies that Israel may decide to attack Iran on its own.
Addressing the Saban Forum at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, he said that such an attack could disrupt the already fragile economies of Europe and the United States, trigger Iranian retaliation against U.S. forces, and ultimately spark a popular backlash in Iran that would bolster its rulers. Panetta also warned that the effect of an Israeli strike is likely to delay Iran's nuclear program by only one to two years "at best."
"Iran's continued drive to develop nuclear capabilities, including troubling enrichment activities and past work on weaponization documented by the IAEA, and its continued support to groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist organizations," Panetta said in his opening remarks, "make clear that the regime in Tehran is a very grave threat to all of us."
However, "at this point, we believe that the combination of economic and diplomatic sanctions that have been placed on Iran have had a serious impact," Panetta said. "Iran is isolating itself from the rest of the world. It is truly becoming a pariah in that region. Their own government is off balance in terms of trying to establish any kind of civility within Iran."
Panetta reiterated that working together, through the international community, Israel and allies in the region, is the best way to achieve the common goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
"It's the best way I believe to ultimately weaken this nation, so that ultimately they have to make a decision about whether they continue to be a pariah or whether they decide to join the international community," the secretary added.
Regarding the use of military force as the best option, Panetta noted "a greater concern is the unintended consequences."
The United State would be blamed for such an attack, the secretary said, "and we could possibly be a target of retaliation from Iran," which may try to hit U.S. ships and bases.
"Just get to the damned table"
During his talk Panetta also urged Israel "reach out and mend fences" with Turkey, Egypt and Jordan, saying that he is troubled by Israel's growing isolation in the region.
Calling in clear and blunt language on Israeli leaders to work hard to restart the peace talks with the Palestinians, he said that they should "Just get to the damned table."
Panetta said that while Israel is not solely responsible for its isolation, it could more actively attempt to reverse the trend.
"For example, Israel can reach out and mend fences with those who share an interest in regional stability," he said. "This is not impossible. If the gestures are rebuked, the world will see those rebukes for what they are. And that is exactly why Israel should pursue them."
Panetta urged Israel to "lean forward" to achieve peace with the Palestinians. "Rather than undermining the Palestinian Authority, it is in Israel's interests to strengthen it by ... continuing to transfer Palestinian tax revenues and pursuing other avenues of cooperation," he said.