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)