- Associated Press - Sunday, January 8, 2012

WASHINGTON (AP) — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Iran is laying the groundwork for making nuclear weapons someday but is not yet building a bomb, and he called for continued diplomatic and economic pressure to persuade Tehran not to take that step.

As he has previously, Mr. Panetta cautioned against a unilateral strike by Israel against Iran’s nuclear facilities, saying the action could trigger Iranian retaliation against U.S. forces in the region.

“We have common cause here” with Israel, he said, “and the better approach is for us to work together.”

Mr. Panetta’s remarks on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” which were taped Friday and aired Sunday, reflect the long-held view of the Obama administration that Iran is not yet committed to building a nuclear arsenal, only to creating the industrial and scientific capacity to allow one if its leaders to decide to take that final step.

The comments suggest the White House’s assessment of Iran’s nuclear strategy has not changed in recent months, despite warnings from advocates of military action that time is running out to prevent Tehran from becoming a nuclear-armed state.

Iran says its nuclear program is only for energy and medical research, and it refuses to halt uranium enrichment.

Several Republican candidates have called for a tougher line against Iran, saying they believe it is committed to building the bomb.

“If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon,” said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the GOP presidential front-runner. “And if you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon.”

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has said that the U.S. should plan a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities and “say to them that if you do not open up those facilities and close them down, we will close them down for you.”

Iran has opened two dozen of its facilities to international inspectors but has refused in defiance of the U.N. Security Council to suspend its uranium enrichment.

A leading hard-line Iranian newspaper reported Sunday that Iran has begun uranium enrichment at a new underground site well protected from possible airstrikes.

Kayhan daily, which is close to Iran’s ruling clerics, said scientists have begun injecting uranium gas into sophisticated centrifuges at the Fordo facility near the holy city of Qom.

In a talk at a Brookings Institution forum in December, Mr. Panetta said an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would delay Iran’s nuclear program by one or two years “at best.” Among the unintended consequences, he said, would be an increase in international support for Iran and the likelihood of Iranian retaliation against U.S. forces and bases in the Mideast.

Mr. Panetta did not discuss the issue directly on “Face the Nation,” but Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who appeared with the defense secretary, said that he wanted the Iranians to believe that a U.S. military strike could wipe out their nuclear program.

“I absolutely want them to believe that’s the case,” he said.

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