What does Secretary of Defense Panetta think about the Iranian nuclear weapons program? A couple of weeks ago he moaned to a Brookings audience about the risks any military strike would bring, and clearly suggested that he opposed it. I, like many others, wondered why it was wise for our secretary of defense to say this on the record and thereby reassure Tehran. More recently Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes has delivered similarly odd remarks, suggesting that an Iranian effort at hegemony in the Gulf would not be opposed forcefully by the United States.
But now, suddenly, Mr. Panetta is taking a different tone. Here is what he said in an interview with Scott Pelley of CBS News:
Pelley: So are you saying that Iran can have a nuclear weapon in 2012?
Panetta: It would probably be about a year before they can do it. Perhaps a little less. But one proviso, Scott, is if they have a hidden facility somewhere in Iran that may be enriching fuel.
Pelley: So that they can develop a weapon even more quickly…
Panetta: On a faster track….
Pelley: Than we believe….
Panetta: That’s correct.
Pelley: If the Israelis decide to launch a military strike to prevent that weapon from being built, what sort of complications does that raise for you?
Panetta: Well, we share the same common concern. The United States does not want Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. That’s a red line for us and that’s a red line, obviously, for the Israelis. If we have to do it we will deal with it.
Pelley: You just said if we have to do it we will come and do it. What is it?
Panetta: If they proceed and we get intelligence that they are proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon then we will take whatever steps necessary to stop it.
Pelley: Including military steps?
Panetta: There are no options off the table
Pelley: A nuclear weapon in Iran is…
“Whatever steps are necessary to stop it” is very strong language with very little wiggle room. Perhaps Mr. Panetta or others in the administration came to realize the foolishness, indeed the danger, of having the Iranian regime believe it can pursue its goals unhindered by the United States. Perhaps they came to realize that any chance of a negotiated resolution with Iran was undermined if the ayatollahs came to believe there was no real military option “on the table.” Perhaps this has been the administration’s bottom line all along, and an Iranian nuclear weapon is truly “unacceptable” to the president. Whatever the explanation, this is the way our secretary of defense should be speaking in public about Iran.