By Luis Ramirez
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Israeli leaders on Wednesday warned Iran that time is running out to resolve disputes over its controversial nuclear program.
Speaking at a press conference in Jerusalem with the visiting Pentagon chief, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said international sanctions aren’t changing Iran’s path toward development of nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear aims are peaceful.
“You recently said that sanctions on Iran are having a big impact on the Iranian economy, and that is correct,” Netanyahu told Panetta. “But unfortunately it is also true that neither sanctions nor diplomacy have yet had any impact on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
“You yourself said a few months ago that when all else fails, America will act,” Netanyahu added. “But these declarations have also not yet convinced the Iranians to stop their program. However forceful our statements, they have not convinced Iran that we are serious about stopping them.”
Earlier, Panetta said U.S. patience with Iran is running thin.
“They have a choice to make,” he said during a visit to a missile defense battery in the southern port town of Ashkelon with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
“They can either negotiate in a way that tries to resolve these issues and has them abiding by international rules and requirements and giving up their effort to develop their nuclear capability,” Panetta said. “But if they don’t, and if they continue to make the decision to proceed with a nuclear weapon … we have options that we are prepared to implement to ensure that does not happen.”
Before landing in Israel late Tuesday, Panetta denied reports that meetings with Israeli leaders would cover potential plans for a preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
“I think it’s the wrong characterization to say that we’re going to be discussing potential attack plans,” he said. “What we are discussing is various contingencies of how we respond.”
Panetta said the United States and Israel are doing everything they can to have the “strongest defense” and protect both countries, adding the two countries have a “very close friendship.”
Barak said the Israel-U.S. relationship is solid.
“The defense ties between Israel and the United States are stronger and tighter than they have ever been, and the credit now has to go, most of it, to you, Leon,” Barak said as he greeted Panetta at the Israeli defense headquarters.
Panetta’s visit also includes talks with Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Panetta arrived in Israel from Egypt, where he met with newly elected President Mohamed Morsi.
Before stopping in Cairo, the U.S. defense secretary visited Tunisia – the site of the first Arab Spring popular uprisings last year, and praised what he said was the country’s peaceful transition to democracy.