Panetta: Keeping Iran Free of Nuclear Weapons a Common Goal

WASHINGTON, Dec. 2, 2011 — The Unit­ed States and its allies and part­ners in the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty must do every­thing pos­si­ble to make sure Iran nev­er obtains a nuclear weapon, Defense Sec­re­tary Leon E. Panet­ta said tonight.

Tak­ing ques­tions from the audi­ence after his speech dur­ing the open­ing ses­sion of the 2011 Saban Forum, Panet­ta addressed a range of Mid­dle East issues, includ­ing the nuclear threat from Iran.

Iran’s Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ahmadine­jad insists his nation’s nuclear pro­gram is a peace­ful enter­prise, but the Inter­na­tion­al Atom­ic Ener­gy Agency report­ed in Novem­ber about evi­dence indi­cat­ing that Iran is try­ing to build a nuclear bomb.

“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.”

The forum is an annu­al gath­er­ing of U.S. and Israeli offi­cials and pol­i­cy­mak­ers. This year the group focused on the his­toric shifts tak­ing place across the Arab world and their impli­ca­tions for U.S.-Israeli secu­ri­ty and inter­ests in the Mid­dle East region.

About Iran, an increas­ing­ly men­ac­ing ele­ment of the region, Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma said last month that the Unit­ed States will take no options off the table in deal­ing with that country’s nuclear ambi­tions.

“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, chiefly as a result of the attack on the British embassy, a pari­ah in that region. Their own gov­ern­ment is off bal­ance in terms of try­ing to estab­lish any kind of civil­i­ty with­in Iran.

The inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty has a com­mon goal, Panet­ta said: an Iran that does not devel­op a nuclear weapon.

Work­ing togeth­er with Israel, with allies in the region and with the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty is the best way to pres­sure Iran, Panet­ta said.

“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.

Panet­ta not­ed that Israeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Netanyahu has said the use of mil­i­tary force should be a last resort. Using mil­i­tary force against Iran’s nuclear pro­gram would delay the nuclear effort only by a year or two, the sec­re­tary said. “A greater con­cern is the unin­tend­ed con­se­quences,” he added. These could include a back­lash in the region that would serve to strength­en a regime that is now weak and iso­lat­ed.

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 might] strike our ships [and] mil­i­tary bases.”

Using mil­i­tary force against Iran also could pro­duce severe con­se­quences for economies around the world, Panet­ta said, includ­ing those of Europe and the Unit­ed States. And using force could prompt an esca­la­tion in the region, he told the audi­ence — a nuclear arms race “that I think would con­sume the Mid­dle East in con­fronta­tion and con­flict.”

The key, he said, is for the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty to work togeth­er to make sure Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon.

“We have made good progress in these efforts,” the sec­re­tary said. “We con­tin­ue to make good progress in these efforts. That’s where we ought to con­tin­ue to put our pres­sures and our eco­nom­ic and diplo­mat­ic efforts.”

The world always will have mil­i­tary action as a last resort, Panet­ta said. “But it must be the last resort, not the first,” he empha­sized.

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