ASHKELON, ISRAEL // Leon Panetta, the US defence secretary, said Iran must either negotiate acceptable limits on its nuclear programme or face the possibility of US military action to stop it from getting the bomb.
Mr Panetta made his remarks today outside the city of Ashkelon in southern Israel, with an "Iron Dome" anti-rocket defence system as a backdrop.
The Pentagon chief repeatedly said that "all options," including military force, are on the table to stop Iran, should sanctions and diplomacy — the preferred means of persuasion — ultimately fail.
He said he still hopes Iran will see that negotiations are the best way out of this crisis.
However, Mr Panetta said, "If they continue and if they proceed with a nuclear weapon, ... we have options that we are prepared to implement to ensure that that does not happen."
Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, said he sees an "extremely low" probability that sanctions will ever compel Iran to give up its nuclear activities.
Mr Barak said Israel "has something to lose" by waiting for sanctions and diplomacy to run their course because Iran is continually accumulating enriched uranium as the key ingredient for a nuclear bomb.
Iran said its nuclear work is for civilian energy uses, but suspicions that the Islamic republic will use enriched uranium for nuclear weapons have resulted in international sanctions and sabre-rattling from Israel, which perceives a nuclear Iran as an existential threat. The United States has discouraged Israel from a unilateral, pre-emptive military strike on Iran, but has said it would keep all options available.
The visit by Mr Panetta to Israel comes just days after US Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney met with top Israeli officials about Iran and other issues. Mr Romney has accused the Obama administration of being too soft on Iran and not providing sufficient support to Israel.
In greeting Mr Panetta today at Israeli defence headquarters, Mr Barak said: "The defence 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."
Mr Panetta responded: "We are a friend, we are a partner, we have, as the defence minister has pointed out, probably the strongest US-Israel defence relationship that we have had in history. What we are doing, working together, is an indication not only of our friendship but of our alliance to work together to try to preserve peace in the future."
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, who was scheduled to meet later today with Mr Panetta, told Israeli Channel 2 TV that despite reservations about an Iranian attack among former Israeli security officials and Israel's current army chief, the country's political leadership would make the final decision on any attack.
"I see an ayatollah regime that declares what it has championed: to destroy us," Mr Netanyahu said. "It's working to destroy us, it's preparing nuclear weapons to destroy us. ... If it is up to me, I won't let that happen."
"[With] matters that have to do with our destiny, with our very existence, we do not put our faith in the hands of others, even our best of friends," Mr Netanyahu said, hinting that Israel might act alone despite American misgivings.
Mr Netanyahu said both Mr Romney and Mr Obama have said "Israel has the right to defend itself."