"The fact is, look, presidents of the United States, prime ministers of Israel or any other country – leaders of these countries don't have, you know, a bunch of little red lines that determine their decisions," Paneta told Foreign Policy Magazine.
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"What they have are facts that are presented to them about what a country is up to, and then they weigh what kind of action is needed to be taken in order to deal with that situation. I mean, that's the real world.
"Red lines are kind of political arguments that are used to try to put people in a corner," he added.
Panetta with Netanyahu (Archive photo: AP)
In the interview, Panetta insisted that the US would not allow Iran to obtain an atomic bomb, repeating intelligence estimates that Tehran had not yet decided to pursue a weapon despite its continued uranium enrichment.
"Let's just say, when you have friends like Israel you engage in vigorous debates about how you confront these issues, and that's what's going on," he said.
"It sometimes, in democracies, plays out in the public."
US deploys forces in Arab world
The defense secretary also addressed the anti-US demonstrations spreading across the Middle East and North Africa, announcing that the US is positioning military forces in as many as 17 or 18 places in order to improve response to the unrest.
But he cautioned against writing off the region's recent moves toward democracy. "One demonstration of extremists, any more than a Ku Klux Klan demonstration in the United States, is not necessarily reflective of what the rest of the country feels," he said.
The New York Times reported on Friday that President Barack Obama has rejected an appeal by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to define a specific “red line” that Iran could not cross in its nuclear program.
Netanyahu reportedly asked Obama in a phone call earlier this week to set the size of Iran’s stockpile of close-to-bomb-grade uranium as the threshold that, if passed, would trigger a US military strike on the Islamic Republic's nuclear facilities.
The report cited an unnamed senior US official as saying that the Obama administration's "red line" is a nuclear weapon.
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