Last night Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made claims about Iran’s nuclear program on CBS News that AIPAC has applauded but the Pentagon has tried to “play down”. Speaking inside the President’s “doomsday plane,” Panetta told anchor Scott Pelley that Iran might be less than a year away from developing a nuclear weapon and referenced a possible “hidden” nuclear site:
- 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….
Today a pentagon spokesperson told the AFP that Panetta’s comments were made “hypothetically” and that he was not suggesting that there was new intelligence pointing to secret facilities.
To date there is no concrete evidence to prove that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon or intends to. In fact, the most damning aspect of the latest IAEA report about Iran is its suggestion that the country is leaning towards “breakout capability”. This corresponds with U.S. intelligence assessments and means there’s still time to pursue diplomatic engagement with Iran.
Panetta’s “red line” comment also landed him a top spot on the front page of AIPAC’s website today. He appeared to suggest to Pelley that the U.S. was not only keeping the military option open, but that it would support Israel by taking “whatever steps necessary” to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. (As Joe Cirincione notes, he stopped just short of saying military force would be used):
- 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.
A disclaimer-like mention at the end of the transcript notes that Panetta told CBS News that “while Iran needs a year or less to assemble a weapon, he has no indication yet that the Iranians have made the decision to go ahead.”
Panetta did not take the opportunity to reiterate comments he made earlier this month about the calamity of a US war with Iran. The secretary told an audience at the pro-Israel Saban Center that an attack would “not destroy” Iran’s ability to produce weapons, would cause major “backlash” against the US along with “severe” economic consequences, strengthen the regime, and “could consume the Middle East in a confrontation and a conflict that we would regret.”