US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta believes that Israel is likely to strike Iran in the coming months, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius said Thursday.
"Panetta believes there is strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June – before Iran enters what Israelis described as a “zone of immunity” to commence building a nuclear bomb," Ignatius wrote.
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Asked by journalists whether he disputes the report, Panetta said, "No, I'm just not commenting."
He added, "What I think and what I view, I consider that to be an area that belongs to me and nobody else."
He noted that Israel has stated publicly that it is considering military action against Iran, adding that US has "indicated our concerns."
Panetta, along with US President Barack Obama warned Israeli officials against opting for a military offensive in Iran, saying it would jeopardize the international sanctions program and other non-military efforts to stop Iran from crossing the nuclear "red line."
Even so, Ignatius claimed that senior officials in the Obama administration have yet to decide how to respond if an Israeli military strike materializes.
The columnist states that "Israeli leaders are said to accept, and even welcome, the prospect of going it alone and demonstrating their resolve at a time when their security is undermined by the 'Arab Spring'."
Another strike in a few years
The Israeli scenario, according to Ignatius, is a five day limited offensive, followed by a UN-brokered ceasefire. The relatively light damage that is expected to be inflicted on Iranian nuclear facilities will require Israel to stage another offensive a few years down the line.
Ignatius notes that American officials see two possible options to dissuade Israel from attacking: Serious talks with Iran – including full access and supervision over its nuclear program – or increased US covert operations that will undermine the nuclear program to the extent that Israel is convinced an attack is no longer necessary.
However, such options might be in vein because Prime Minister Netanyahu has already made a decision to attack in the next six months, Ignatius claims.
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Thursday said that if sanctions are unsuccessful in compelling Iran to abandon its nuclear program, the international community will have to examine other options.
"There is a global understanding that if the sanctions don't achieve the coveted goal of stopping the Iranian military nuclear program, an operation would have to be considered," he said at the Herzliya Conference.
AP, Boaz Fyler and Shiri Hadar contributed to this report
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