U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta

An Alhurra TV Exclusive with Sec. Panetta on Iran, Syria

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon PanettaIn his first interview with an Arabic television network, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta addressed the international community’s response to Iran’s nuclear program and the Syrian uprising, the consequences of any military action and the reaction to the burning of the Koran in Afghanistan. The following are excerpts of his interview:

Panetta on the International Response to Iran’s Nuclear Program

For the first time, I think in a very long time, the international community is unified with regards to its policy towards Iran. It’s very clear, the message from the international community that Iran should not develop a nuclear weapon. And that it must become part of the family of international nations and abide by international rules. That’s the main message. And the international community has said that because of the behavior of Iran, we are going to make very clear that has to change. So it has applied some very strong economic sanctions, some very strong diplomatic sanctions. The strongest, I think, that have ever been applied against the nation and the result is that it is impacting on Iran. It is impacting on their economy. It is impacting on their quality of life. It is impacting on their business community. It is impacting on their energy community. And I think as a result it is putting pressure on them, isolating them and making very clear to them that they have to change their ways.

Panetta on Iran’s Nuclear Program

I think the intelligence is clear; that they have not made a firm decision to proceed with the development of a nuclear weapon. They do, however, continue to develop their nuclear processing capabilities. They do enrichment and they’re continuing to locate additional enrichment facilities. All of that concerns us. We want to be able to have the IAEA, the nuclear agency, be able to go in to be able to look at their facilities to determine whether or not they are abiding by international rules, international law. They have resisted that ability to inspect those facilities. We think they should; if their purposes are peaceful, if their purposes are to develop nuclear power for domestic reasons. Then they shouldn’t be afraid to allow the IAEA to do its inspection.

Panetta on Concerns if Iran Develops Nuclear Weapons

The concern is this, that Iran continues to try to destabilize nations, particularly in this region. They promote terrorism; they have supported terrorist activities throughout the region. They continue to be a destabilizing force in Syria and because obviously their intent and their purpose, is not to promote stability in this region. For them to obtain a nuclear weapon would be extremely dangerous, because it would virtually allow terrorism then to have the ability to use a nuclear weapon. That’s dangerous.

Panetta on the Possibility of Israel Attacking Iran

As President Obama has stated, and I agree, we do not believe Israel’s made a decision to do that and…(we) have been very clear to (Prime Minister Netanyahu) that we have the same concerns as Israel with regards to Iran and their developing a nuclear weapon. But that the international community is unified in putting pressure on Iran and that Israel should operate with the international community in increasing that pressure on Iran. That’s the better way to go right now. We think we have the room and the space to try to conduct diplomacy. Military action should always be a last resort, not the first resort.

Panetta on Negotiating with Iran

There have been efforts to try to negotiate on these issues and unfortunately, they have led nowhere. In order to be able to reach a deal it takes two parties who are willing to engage in honest, direct and open discussions regarding this issue. I think if they are willing to do that, if they are willing to really sit down and negotiate in seriousness, over this very difficult and complicated issue, that obviously that would be a better approach. But the window for that kind of diplomatic solution, as pointed out by the President and by the Prime Minister of England, that window is closing. They have to show a willingness to negotiate on these issues and do that soon.

Panetta on the Role of the International Community in Syria

I believe that the best course of action is to maintain the international pressure against Syria. Again, the international community has been unified along with the Arab League in applying sanctions against Syria. Making very clear that Assad should step down and allow the Syrian people to control their destiny. This is the main message. We should continue to apply that pressure, continue to use every avenue to try to make very clear to Assad that it is important for him to now step down. To allow the people of Syria to come together and develop the institutions of government that will allow their people to freely exercise the kind of rights that the Syrian people are entitled too.

Panetta on the Role of the Arab League in Syria  

We think it is important to work with the Arab League in deciding what the next steps are. We do believe that continuing to put pressure on Syria, both diplomatic and economic is the better course right now. You know anytime people talk about military action you have to understand what are the consequences of that. Who is the opposition in Syria? Who do you help? What are the consequences of taking steps like that? Those are serious considerations. It is not to say that options–all options should be on the table.  But I think right now the better course is for the international community and the Arab League to continue to apply strong diplomatic, economic sanctions. To try to get the U.N. to agree that Assad should step down and that the people of Syria should have the opportunity to govern themselves.

Panetta on the Consequences of Military Action in Syria

Anytime you contemplate military action, you have to consider what are the consequences? What are the ramifications? As I pointed out in testimony in the Congress…there were suggestions in the Congress that we should do targeted bombings in Syria. But Syria does have a very strong air defense system and that would have to be taken out before you could do that. That kind of system is located in populated areas and clearly there would be a lot of collateral damage if that took place. So it’s those kinds of considerations that have to be thought seriously about. People who urge military action have to understand that before you take that step, you better understand where does that kind of action lead.

Panetta on Concerns if Assad Steps Down

Anytime a leader steps down, like Assad, there are always questions about who will take that person’s place. But one thing is for sure, that by virtue of the Syrian government killing the large number of Syrian people that this government has been engaged in, that it has lost its legitimacy as a government. And Assad has lost his legitimacy as a leader. When you kill your own people, you reach a point where you have lost your ability to truly govern and I think that’s happened in Syria. And the result will be that opposing forces will then have to come together, as they did in Libya, to establish hopefully, a coalition council that can ultimately help decide who should govern that country in the future. That would be much better for the Syrian people than the kind of killing that is going on right now.

Panetta on the Formation of the New Governments Following the Arab Spring

When a country decides to move towards democracy and allow all people to participate in that government, there are going to be different views. There are going to be different ideologies that may be represented in that government. But at the same time giving all people the ability to participate makes clear that even though there may be some extreme ideologies that are there, that ultimately people recognize that the best way to govern is close to the center. Not to the extremes.

Panetta on the Burning of the Koran in Afghanistan

This was a terrible incident that took place. I think it was a terrible mistake that was made. Both the President, as well as I and the Secretary of State, have apologized to the Afghan people for what took place. And we’ve made clear that we will fully investigate this matter and that we will take action against those that are involved and hold them accountable. This does not represent, I think, the vast majority of the good men and women in uniform that serve in Afghanistan and that serve alongside the Afghan army and their soldiers. This is not reflective of the behavior of most of our men and women who truly believe that we must respect the sovereignty and the culture of Afghanistan in order for it to be able to succeed as a country.

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