"Despite the efforts to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program, they have reached a point where they can assemble a bomb in a year or potentially less," said US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in a CBS interview Tuesday, Dec. 20, marking a radical change in US administration policy, he added: "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."
debkafile notes that as recently as Dec. 2, the US defense secretary in a lecture at the Brookings Institute in Washington warned Israel that a military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would hold back its bomb program by no more than a year or two and seriously damage the world economy. He said then that a nuclear-armed Iran would be an existential concern for Israel, but the red line for America would be the disruption of Persian Gulf oil trade.
In the CBS interview he gave on his way back from trips to Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, he drew no distinctions between America and Israel on the Iran issue.
Asked by anchor Scott Pelley if Iran could have a nuclear weapon in 2012, he answered: "It would probably be about a year before they can do it. Perhaps a little less." That would depend on their having "a hidden facility somewhere in Iran that may be enriching fuel."
Pelley then asked: 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: 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.
Asked if "it" included military steps, the US defense secretary replied: There are no options off the table. A nuclear weapon in Iran is unacceptable.
He added that he has no indication yet that the Iranians have made the decision to go ahead.
Until now, debkafile's Washington sources note, the Obama administration stood firmly by sanctions, which could be made tougher, as the only course of action for putting the brakes on Iran's weapons program.
However, Panetta made no mention of sanctions in this interview – not even of the ultimate penalties of an embargo on its oil trade and blacklisting its central bank.
debkafile's intelligence sources link this radical change of posture, and its implied open door to joint US-Israeli military action, to the discussion on the Iranian nuclear issue President Barack Obama had with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Washington last Friday, Dec. 16. It took place at about the same time as Leon Panetta was meeting with Turkish leaders in Ankara. (The night before, the Turkish military council met urgently to review preparations for war hostilities on two fronts: Syria and Iran.)
Both meetings, say debkafile's Washington sources, addressed the reality of Iran having a nuclear bomb within months.
The administration's change of course finds expression in six areas:
1. Panetta has tossed aside the various intelligence estimates of a three-to-four year timeline for Iran to have a nuclear bomb. He now accepts that Tehran may be only months away from this target.
2. His reference to "a hidden facility somewhere in Iran that may be enriching fuel" reflects the growing conviction among Western and Middle East intelligence experts that Iran has fast-tracked its high-grade uranium enrichment in underground facilities.
3. He is no longer warning Israel against attacking Iran and appears to be taking the opposite tack: We must stop Iran crossing the shared red line to an "unacceptable" nuclear weapon. "If we have to do it we will deal with it," he said, referring to the military option.
4. It is the last moment for the US to avert the Middle East's plunge into a nuclear race.
Dec. 5, the former Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki al-Faisal said that after failing to persuade Israel and Iran to give up their nuclear weapons, Riyadh had no option but to develop its own; and Turkish leader have been saying to the Obama administration that if Iran has a nuclear weapon, so too will Turkey.
The administration is now facing the bleak realization that a disastrous nuclear race in this volatile region can be deflected only by military action to cut down and destroy Iran's nuclear weapons program.
5. Iran's capture of the American RQ-170 stealth drone on Dec. 4 brought home to US military and intelligence planners that a military showdown between the US and Iran is no longer avoidable and if America does not take the initiative, Iran will keep on driving it into corners until there is no other option but to hit back.
6. The sudden death of the North Korean leader Kim Jong II and the period of uncertainty facing his successor Kim Jong-un could potentially lead to Pyongyang – or factions fighting for power – stepping up its involvement in Iran's nuclear weapon and missile development programs.