Panetta: No Israeli decision yet on attacking Iran

US defense secretary says there is still time for sanctions; Lipkin-Shahak adds his voice to choir against military action.

US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta 390 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta 390 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Tuesday that he did not believe that Israel had made a decision on whether to attack Iran over its nuclear program, and added that he thought there was still time for a stronger sanctions push.
Panetta’s comments came at a Pentagon briefing against the background of the very loud and public debate in Israel about whether to attack Iran.
Panetta held a round of talks in Israel two weeks ago, and met with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Just a few days before his arrival, Netanyahu said in a television interview that he had not yet decided whether to attack Iran. He did make clear, however, that neither diplomacy nor sanctions were working.
Asked about comments by Israeli officials, Panetta said, “I don’t believe they’ve made a decision as to whether or not they will go in and attack Iran at this time.”
“With regards to the issue of where we’re at from a diplomatic point of view, the reality is that we still think there is room to continue to negotiate,” he said.
Tehran says its nuclear ambitions are peaceful and has threatened wide-ranging reprisals if attacked. A muscular response from Tehran would increase the likelihood that the United States would be drawn into any conflict.
Israel’s financial markets fell sharply on Monday in response to the intensifying debate on the prospect of going to war with Iran, although some of those losses were recovered on Tuesday.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, cautioned that any Israeli strike would not destroy Iran’s nuclear program, only delay its work.
“I may not know about all of their capabilities but I think that it’s a fair characterization to say that they could delay but not destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities,” he said.
Regardless, the media has been awash over the last week in a public debate over the issue, reaching the point where analysts have begun speculating about the conclusions from a future committee of inquiry into the attack and ensuing war.
This debate – as well as the well-publicized disagreement between Israel and the US over whether military action should be taken before Tehran has all the ingredients for a bomb, or whether it should be held off until the Islamic Republic actually makes the decision to assemble the bomb – has not been lost on Iran.
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The conclusions the Iranians have drawn from the debates, at least judging from remarks made Tuesday by Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast, is that no attack is imminent.
“Even if some officials in the illegitimate regime [Israel] want to carry out such a stupid action, there are those inside [the Israeli government] who won’t allow it because they know they would suffer very severe consequences from such an act,” he was quoted by the AFP as telling reporters at a weekly briefing on Tuesday.
“In our calculations, we aren’t taking these claims very seriously because we see them as hollow and baseless,” he said.
He also reportedly said that Israel is only talking about an attack because of domestic problems, such as the economic protests. Israel Radio reported that Iranian leaders are convinced that Israel will not act without US backing, and that as long as Washington is indicating that they do not currently support such a move, there is no reason for undue concern.
Netanyahu, in a statement he made alongside Panetta earlier this month, foresaw this attitude, and said that despite forceful statements by the US and Israel, Iran is not convinced “that we are serious about stopping them.”
“Right now, the Iranian regime believes that the international community does not have the will to stop its nuclear program. This must change and it must change quickly, because time to resolve this issue peacefully is running out,” Netanyahu continued.
Meanwhile, former chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak added his voice to the numerous former security heads openly discussing the matter and advising against an attack.
“I assume that the decision-makers have the same information that is in the hands of the heads of the security establishment,” he said.
“I ask myself how the security officials and the politicians can arrive at such different conclusions. I completely trust the security establishment officials and give a great deal of weight to their opinions.”
Lipkin-Shahak, speaking at a ceremony marking 20 years since the beginning of the second Rabin government, also said he believes the Americans when they say that they will not let Iran get a nuclear weapon. He decried what he said was the failure of the political echelon to have the same intimacy now with Washington enjoyed by the military and intelligence communities. He also said there was no rush to attack Iran, as some in the media have speculated, before the November elections in the US.
“It is not right to present this as something that has to happen in the autumn,” he said.
Reuters contributed to this report.