"Iran will never have nuclear weapons," US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told Israeli President Shimon Peres Wednesday.
Panetta arrived in Israel earlier in the morning, for a series of meetings with senior Israeli officials, which focused on the threat posed by Iran's nuclear ambitions.
"We want to make it clear that Iran will never have nuclear weapons." Panetta stressed. "We will work in cooperation with Israel and together with the global community to do everything in order to ensure this never happens. I want you to have my personal assurance that we will do everything so that this threat does not become a reality."
Earlier Wednesday, Panetta met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who warned that Iran remains unfazed and defiant vis-à-vis the United States and Israel's threats of a military strike against its nuclear facilities.
Speaking at a press conference held in Jerusalem, Netanyahu warned that time was running out "to resolve this issue peacefully."
The increasing financial sanctions imposed on Tehran are having a significant impact on the Iranian economy, Netanyahu told the Pentagon chief, "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. But these declarations have also not yet convinced the Iranians to stop their program," he warned. "However forceful our statements, they have not convinced Iran that we are serious about stopping them."
Upon arriving in Israel, Panetta met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the two toured an Iron Dome battery stationed near Ashkelon.
Panetta used the visit to issue his own warning to Iran over its continued efforts to develop military nuclear capability: "Iran has a choice to make. 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. But if they don't," he warned, "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."
Still, the Pentagon chief insisted that the West must exhaust all diplomatic avenues prior to any decision on a military campaign.
"It is my responsibility as secretary of defense to provide the president with a full range of options, including military options should diplomacy fail," Panetta was quoted as saying by AFP.
"The most effective way to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon is for the international community to be united, proving to Iran that it will only make itself less secure if it continues to try to pursue a nuclear weapon," he stressed.
'Sanctions are taking too long'
During the Iron Dome tour, Barak commented that while it was clear that the West's financial sanctions were effective to a degree, it is "extremely unlikely" that they will prompt Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
"Sanctions and diplomacy have an impact. However, the truth is that there is a low chance that the Ayatollah's will sit at the table and say 'that's it, the game is over – we need to give up the nuclear program.' It's important to note that sanctions and diplomacy take time and in the meantime, Iran is continuing to enrich uranium and approach the amounts it needs to prepare a weapon." Barak said.
The defense minister stressed that Israel has made it clear to the US that, "Only the Israeli government will make the decision regarding its core defense issues."
Asked how the Obama Administration would react in the event of a unilateral Israeli strike, Panetta said that "questions about… Israel's national security interests are something that must be left up to the Israelis."
Barak and Panetta also discussed the defense relations between both countries: "The relations between the US administration and the Israeli government have grown stronger in recent years, and the relations between the US Department of Defense and Israel's Defense Ministry, and the entire defense establishment, are at what might be a record," Barak said.
"I believe that a great amount of the credit belongs to my friend, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and of course to President Obama."
On his part, Panetta said that the US and Israel enjoy a "very close friendship" and even closer defense ties.
Barak echoed the Pentagon chief, saying that "Our relations deepened in a variety of fields, including intelligence, high-tech, and also in ensuring Israel's qualitative military advantage.
"There is a very comprehensive cooperation, and we recently received another $70 million to advance the readiness of the Iron Dome system. The system represents a remarkable technological accomplishment on the part of the Israeli defense industries, and an exceptional operational achievement for the IAF and the air defense fighters.
"This is a very effective measure," he stressed, "which provides flexibility to the political echelon, as well as providing defense of a different sort to residents.
"We live in a difficult area, with many dangers, and changes that we have not known in the past that have transpired in the area during the past two years. Israel and the US are closely following the developments. As with any friendship and partnership, there are occasional disagreements, but this does not detract from the quality and depth of the relations. We are determined to keep the relations close, deep and open, even if we don't always agree on everything, and we will continue maintaining these relations," Barak concluded.