JERUSALEM -- Amid worries that Israel might unilaterally attack Iran's nuclear facilities, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta held top-level meetings here Wednesday to discuss America’s backup plan in case international sanctions fail to compel the Islamic Republic to curtail its program.
The visit came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he has not yet made a decision to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities but warned time was running out and Israel would not rely on any other nation for protection.
During a tour of Israel’s U.S.-funded missile-defense system known as Iron Dome, Panetta reiterated the Obama administration’s commitment to preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon, including using military force if necessary.
“We will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, period," Panetta said. “We will exert all options in the effort to ensure that that does not happen."
Panetta, who met with Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, was the latest in a string of U.S. officials to visit Israel recently, urging Netanyahu to refrain from launching a military strike against Iran.
Israel fears Iran is seeking to build a nuclear bomb that could be used against it. Iran insists its nuclear program is intended for civilian purposes.
Panetta downplayed speculation in the Israeli media that his trip was intended to show Israel the details of a possible U.S. military strike against Iran in order to demonstrate that a sole Israeli attack would not be as effective.
“It’s the wrong characterization to say that we're going to be discussing potential attack plans," Panetta said Tuesday during a stopover in Cairo. “What we are discussing are various contingencies and how we would respond. We don’t talk about specific military plans.”
Netanyahu has said that sanctions so far have not had one “iota” of effect on Iran’s nuclear program and that the regime does not believe the international community is serious about stopping it.
In a series of interviews given to the major Israeli television stations Tuesday night, Netanyahu warned that “Israel cannot count on anyone else.”
In addition to U.S. pressure, Netanyahu is facing growing domestic political pressure to refrain from attacking Iran, a move many fear might trigger a regional war and push Iran to make an all-out push for a nuclear weapon. At present, Israel is believed to be the region’s only nuclear power.
Opposition leader Shaul Mofaz, who briefly joined Netanyhau’s right-wing government before quitting last month, said an Israeli strike would be “catastrophic” and any attack should be led by the United States.
Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz is also reportedly opposed to a strike, according to Israeli media reports this week. Others in the military and Netanyahu’s security cabinet have expressed reservations.
The resistance raises the political stakes of an attack for Netanyahu, whom most analysts see as a cautious, risk-averse leader.
“To put it delicately, he is not a decision-making machine," wrote Maariv newspaper columnist Ben Caspit on Wednesday. “It is very difficult to imagine a situation in which a prime minister launches an attack on Iran — an immense, historic and fateful move with far-reaching consequences for Israel, the region and the world — when all the top security officials are opposed to it."
But in his interviews, Netanyahu signaled that a decision on a military strike will be made by politicians, not generals. He said former Prime Minister Menachem Begin brushed aside military opposition in 1981 when he ordered an airstrike on an Iraqi nuclear facility.
-- Edmund Sanders
Photo: U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, left, and Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak deliver statements to the media during a visit Wednesday to an Iron Dome rocket defense shield battery, seen in the background, in the coastal city of Ashkelon, in Israel. Credit: Tsafrir Abayov / Associated Press.