Panetta, De Maizière Discuss Afghanistan, Syria, Iran

WASHINGTON, Feb. 16, 2012 — Defense Sec­re­tary Leon E. Panet­ta and Ger­man Defense Min­is­ter Thomas De Maiz­ière respond­ed to reporters’ ques­tions on Afghanistan, Syr­ia, Iran and Israel fol­low­ing a bilat­er­al Pen­ta­gon meet­ing.

Panet­ta char­ac­ter­ized as “extreme­ly help­ful” reports that Afghanistan Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai stat­ed three-way meet­ings have occurred among Afghan, U.S. and Tal­iban rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

“It’s always been impor­tant for us to make clear that rec­on­cil­i­a­tion has to be Afghan-led,” he said. “What Pres­i­dent Karzai’s state­ment con­firmed is that Afghanistan is now very much involved in the process of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.”

That involve­ment is essen­tial to deter­min­ing whether or not it’s fea­si­ble to rec­on­cile Tal­iban for­mer insur­gents with a sta­ble Afghan cen­tral gov­ern­ment, the sec­re­tary said.

De Maiziere not­ed the sen­si­tive nature of such dis­cus­sions, say­ing, “These talks will be bet­ter, the less we talk about them.”

On Syr­ia, the sec­re­tary said he is dis­turbed by indi­ca­tions al Qai­da in Iraq mem­bers have infil­trat­ed the oppo­si­tion there, as Direc­tor of Nation­al Intel­li­gence James R. Clap­per Jr. tes­ti­fied before the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee today.

“We have to con­tin­ue to work with the Arab League and deter­mine what steps should be tak­en to try to deal with the sit­u­a­tion in Syr­ia,” Panet­ta said.

Defense offi­cials ear­li­er this month declared armed attacks by Syr­i­an Pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad’s regime that have killed and wound­ed thou­sands of cit­i­zens are “utter­ly deplorable.”

While the Unit­ed State’s focus thus far has been on apply­ing diplo­mat­ic and eco­nom­ic pres­sure on the Assad regime, the sec­re­tary said al Qaida’s attempt to estab­lish a pres­ence in the con­flict-riv­en nation height­ens wor­ries about Syr­ia.

“Frankly, our con­cerns, which were large to begin with … the sit­u­a­tion there has become much more seri­ous,” he said.

The extent of al Qaida’s involve­ment in Syr­i­an oppo­si­tion forces is unclear, Panet­ta said.

“A lot remains to be seen as to exact­ly what their role is,” he said. “Just the fact that they’re present con­cerns us.”

De Maiz­ière respond­ed to a Ger­man reporter’s ques­tion on how Ger­many should respond to ris­ing ten­sions about pos­si­ble mil­i­tary action involv­ing Israel and Iran.

“We view the devel­op­ments with great con­cern, but also believe the focus of the dis­cus­sion is too much on Israel and not enough on Iran,” the min­is­ter respond­ed in Ger­man and through an Eng­lish trans­la­tor.

“Iran is the recip­i­ent of sanc­tions, and the sanc­tions, which were also brought about with the assis­tance of Ger­many, are cur­rent­ly as strong as nev­er before,” he con­tin­ued.

Inter­est­ed nations should use every oppor­tu­ni­ty for a peace­ful res­o­lu­tion to ques­tions about Iran, he said.

The Unit­ed States and oth­er nations have grap­pled in recent weeks to pres­sure Iran’s lead­ers to respond to those ques­tions, which include Iran’s pos­si­ble pur­suit of nuclear weapons, region­al influ­ence and threat­ened inter­fer­ence with inter­na­tion­al traf­fic in the Strait of Hor­muz.

“I hope Israel will join the efforts of the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty and will not resort to uni­lat­er­al action,” De Maiz­ière said. “Ger­many will also stand by Israel. What this means in con­crete terms remains to be seen.”

Panet­ta said the Unit­ed States shares com­mon cause with the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty and Israel in con­cerns about Iran.

“We’ve made it very clear that we will not tol­er­ate their hav­ing a nuclear weapon,” the sec­re­tary said. “We’ve made very clear they should not close the Strait of Hor­muz.”

The inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty has joined togeth­er very effec­tive­ly in a num­ber of diplo­mat­ic and eco­nom­ic sanc­tions against Iran, Panet­ta added.

Iran should “take action to join the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty, and to engage with the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty in a way that can hope­ful­ly resolve these issues,” he said.

The Unit­ed States has always main­tained that talks with Iran are desir­able, “as long as those talks are con­struc­tive,” the sec­re­tary added.

“As the pres­i­dent has said, there is time and space for diplo­ma­cy,” Panet­ta said. “But … Iran has to meet its inter­na­tion­al oblig­a­tions … and it has to engage in a sin­cere and con­struc­tive way to achieve a diplo­mat­ic res­o­lu­tion.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)