Panetta to meet Barak, Netanyahu, Peres in quick trip to Israel


Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in Israel to discuss United States-Israel defense ties and the potential threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Panetta will meet with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres.

“We are a friend, we are a partner, we have — as the defense minister has pointed out — probably the strongest US-Israel defense relationship that we have had in history,” Panetta told reporters before the meeting, according to the Associated Press and Times of Israel. “What we are doing, working together, is an indication not only of our friendship but of our alliance to work together to try to preserve peace in the future.”

Panetta did not go into specifics on the Iran discussions, but said that he and Israeli officials would be “discussing various contingencies and how we would respond.”

On Tuesday, President Obama announced tougher sanctions on Iran’s energy sector and banks, according to the AP.

Also on Tuesday, Netanyahu told Israeli Channel 2 News that he had not yet made a decision on whether to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, but urged military and security officials to keep the debate over such a strike out of the public sphere.

Panetta: Iran sanctions have not yet stopped nuclear program


Two days before his visit to Israel, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that though tough international sanctions have not yet caused Iran to drop its nuclear ambitions, they would eventually persuade the regime to “do what’s right.”

Speaking in Tunisia on Monday, Panetta said that the sanctions have caused significant damage to Iran’s economy, according to the Associated Press.

“These sanctions are having a serious impact in terms of the economy in Iran,” he told reporters, according to the AP. “And while the results of that may not be obvious at the moment, the fact is that they have expressed a willingness to negotiate and they continue to seem interested in trying to find a diplomatic solution.”

As Iran’s alleged quest for a nuclear weapon continues, Israel’s leadership has raised the possibility of striking Iran’s nuclear facilities, a move that the Obama Administration has argued is premature at this point. The Obama administration has, however, repeatedly declared that “all options” are on the table.

Panetta will meet with Israeli leaders on Wednesday.

Also on Monday, members of the Senate and House of Representatives agreed on a sanctions bill aimed at further reducing Iranian oil revenues.

How to deal with Iran’s nuclear program has been a central foreign policy issue of the U.S. presidential campaign.

Amid new Iran nuke rumors, Barak and Panetta to meet


Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will meet with his U.S. counterpart, Leon Panetta, in Washington amid reports that Iran may have achieved the capability to build a nuclear bomb.

Israel has said that such a capability is a “red line” that could trigger military action.

The defense chiefs are scheduled to meet Thursday.

The Associated Press reported this week that it had obtained a drawing of an explosives containment chamber said to exist on an Iranian military site. The chamber’s only known use would be to test nuclear weapons.

Iran has denied reports that it is seeking a nuclear weapon. Western experts have said the Islamic Republic appears to be moving closer to such a capability.

The Obama administration has endeavored to keep Israel from striking while it pursues sanctions and diplomatic pressure as a means of getting Iran to retreat from its suspected nuclear weapons program.

US defense chief warns on Iran strike consequences


Military action against Iran could have “unintended consequences” in the region, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Thursday, hours after Tehran warned that an attack against its nuclear sites would be met by “iron fists.”

Panetta, who took over the Pentagon’s top job in July, said he agreed with an assessment of his predecessor, Robert Gates, that a strike on Iran would only delay its nuclear program, which the West believes is aimed at making an atomic bomb.

Gates also warned it could unite the country and deepen its resolve toward pursuing nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful and that it is enriching uranium to power reactors for electricity generation.

“You’ve got to be careful of unintended consequences here,” Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon, when asked about his concerns about a military strike.

He acknowledged military action might fail to deter Iran “from what they want to do.”

“But more importantly, it could have a serious impact in the region, and it could have a serious impact on U.S. forces in the region,” he said. “And I think all of those things, you know, need to be carefully considered.”

Tension over Iran’s nuclear program has increased since Tuesday when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Tehran appeared to have worked on designing a bomb and may still be conducting secret research to that end.

Speculation has heightened in the Israeli media that Israel may strike Iran’s nuclear sites and there is speculation in the Western press about a possible U.S. attack.

Iran has warned that it will respond to any attacks by hitting Israel and U.S. interests in the Gulf. Analysts say Tehran could retaliate by closing the Strait of Hormuz, the waterway where about 40 percent of all traded oil passes.

“Our enemies, particularly the Zionist regime (Israel), America and its allies, should know that any kind of threat and attack or even thinking about any (military) action will be firmly responded to,” Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on state television.

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Last week, a U.S. military official told a forum in Washington that he saw Iran as the top threat to the United States and its allies in the Middle East, surpassing al Qaeda.

He pointed to concerns over Iran’s nuclear program and also to accusations by the United States that Iran plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington, an allegation Tehran denied.

Still, Panetta said military action remained a last resort in the U.S. and Israeli view and stressed U.S. efforts to win tougher sanctions against Tehran.

“It is important for us to make sure we apply the toughest sanctions—economic, diplomatic pressures—on Iran to change their behavior,” Panetta said.

“And we are in discussions with our allies with regards to additional sanctions that ought to be placed on Iran.”

The European Union may approve fresh sanctions against Iran within weeks, after a U.N. agency said Tehran had worked to design nuclear bombs, EU diplomats said on Thursday.

EU sanctions would be a significant part of Western efforts to ratchet up pressure on Tehran. Western governments would prefer U.N. Security Council measures against Tehran, but Russia and China, both permanent U.N. Security Council members with veto power, are opposed.

Asked whether the United States could live with a nuclear Iran, Panetta said Washington has made it very clear that “it’s unacceptable for Iran to develop a nuclear capability.”

“As to what happens down the road, you know, I think our hope is that we don’t reach that point and that Iran decides that it should join the international family,” he said.

Additional reporting by Missy Ryan; Editing by Vicki Allen

Panetta urges Israel, Palestinians to negotiate


Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Monday called for “bold action” from Israeli and Palestinian leaders to achieve peace after cautioning that Israel was becoming increasingly isolated in the Middle East.

Panetta, making his first trip to Israel since becoming Pentagon chief, met Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the start of his visit which includes separate talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“I want to emphasize that there is a need, and an opportunity, for bold action on both sides to move toward a negotiated two-state solution. There is no alternative to negotiations,” Panetta said at a news conference with Barak.

U.S.-brokered peace talks collapsed a year ago after Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month limited moratorium on construction in Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Abbas has conditioned a return to negotiations on a settlement freeze and applied last month for full Palestinian membership of the United Nations, a move opposed by the United States and Israel which have urged him to resume talks.

Speaking to reporters on his flight to Israel, Panetta said he would reaffirm U.S. security commitments to Israel and try to help it improve its increasingly chilly relations with Turkey and Egypt.

“It’s pretty clear, at this dramatic time in the Middle East when there have been so many changes, that it is not a good situation for Israel to become increasingly isolated. And that is what has happened,” Panetta said on the plane.

Speaking at the news conference with Panetta, Barak said: “It is clear that in the world as a whole there are many who would like to see Israel cornered into a sort of isolation and it is clear to us that we have a responsibility to try to moderate, to ease tensions.”

Panetta’s visit to the Middle East, which includes meetings with Egyptian leaders, comes at a time when Arab popular demand for political change has shaken the region, raising hopes, tensions and uncertainty.

Protests toppled governments in Tunisia and longtime U.S. ally Egypt earlier this year and touched off a civil war in Libya that led to the ouster of leader Muammar Gaddafi.

But the changes have sometimes been unsettling.

Egyptian protesters invaded the Israeli Embassy in Cairo a month ago in anger over a clash that killed five border guards. The military government’s handling of that incident and comments afterward raised concerns about Cairo’s future commitment to its long-standing peace deal with Israel.

“The timing (of Panetta’s visit) couldn’t be more apt given the events unfolding in the region and broad range of important issues on the agenda with the Israelis and the Egyptians,” a senior U.S. defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

On the flight to Israel, Panetta said he would make clear to Israel that the United States would protect its “qualitative military edge.”

“As they take risks for peace, we will be able to provide the security that they will need in order to ensure that they can have the room hopefully to negotiate,” he said.

Iran and its nuclear program also will be on Panetta’s agenda. He said with much of the world opposed to Iran developing its nuclear capabilities, it would be best to work together to try to curb Tehran’s ambitions rather than take unilateral action.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Roger Atwood

U.S. told Egypt it must rescue Israeli embassy workers or suffer ‘consequences,’ sources say


The United States told Egypt’s military rulers during an attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo that they must act quickly in order to prevent Israeli personnel from being attacked by Egyptian protesters, Haaretz learned on Saturday.

According to senior U.S. source that were involved in the attempt to resolve the Cairo incident, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called Supreme Military Council head Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, conveying what the source called an forceful message concerning the need for speed in Egypt’s ending of the embassy attack.

Read more at Haaretz.com.