REPORTING FROM WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Iran on Sunday that any attempt to carry out its threat to choke off the world’s oil supply by closing the Strait of Hormuz would draw a quick U.S. military response.
“We made very clear that the United States will not tolerate the blocking of the Strait of Hormuz,” Panetta said. “That's another red line for us and that we will respond to them.”
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that the Iranians could block tanker traffic “for a period of time” in the narrow strait that is a key artery through which about one-fifth of world's oil supply flows.
“We've invested in capabilities to ensure that if that happens, we can defeat that,” Dempsey said. “But we would take action and reopen the strait.”
Their blunt restatement of U.S. policy in a joint interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation” marks the latest volley in the escalating war of words between Western governments and Iran in recent weeks.
In response, Iranian leaders have threatened to block the waterway that links the Persian Gulf, home of massive oil terminals, and the Gulf of Oman off Iran’s southern border. Disrupting the flow of oil through the strait could cause economic turmoil around the globe.
In the latest iteration, a senior commander of the Revolutionary Guard force was quoted in a Tehran newspaper as saying government leaders had decided not to “allow a drop of oil” to pass through the Strait of Hormuz if “our enemies block the export of our oil,” according to an Associated Press report Sunday.
Several Republican presidential candidates have charged that President Obama has not been tough enough on Iran nor countered the threat that its nuclear ambitions pose to stability in the Middle East and the world.
Panetta also said the U.S. would consider it a “red line” if Iran begins to develop a nuclear weapon. Iran insists it is enriching uranium only for civilian power plants and research, but the U.S. and its allies fear the program could be used to develop high-grade nuclear fuel for warheads.
“Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No,” Panetta said. “But we know that they're trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that's what concerns us. And our red line to Iran is, ‘Do not develop a nuclear weapon.’ That's a red line for us.”
Panetta and Dempsey suggested the U.S. had the military capability to stop any attempt by Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, although neither would offer details.
“I think they need to know that ... if they take that step, that they're going to get stopped,” Panetta said, adding that he was not taking any options off the table. He would not say if the U.S. would oppose a military strike by Israel, which has launched preemptive air attacks in the past against nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria.
The U.S. prefers to have Israel and the rest of the international community work together to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions through diplomatic and economic pressure, Panetta said. He added that an Israeli military strike could lead to Iranian attacks on U.S. forces in the Middle East.
“If the Israelis made that decision, we would have to be prepared to protect our forces in that situation. And that's what we'd be concerned about,” Panetta said.
-- Jim Puzzanghera
Photo: Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, left, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on CBS' "Face the Nation." Credit: Chris Usher / CBS News