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Mr. Panetta did not rule out launching a pre-emptive strike.

“But the responsible thing to do right now is to keep putting diplomatic and economic pressure on them to force them to do the right thing,” he said, “and to make sure that they do not make the decision to proceed with the development of a nuclear weapon.”

Mr. Panetta said that if Iran started developing a weapon, the U.S. would act.

“I think they need to know that — that if they take that step — that they’re going to get stopped,” Mr. Panetta said.

Gen. Dempsey also said that Iran has the military power to block the Strait of Hormuz “for a period of time” if it decides to do so, but that the U.S. would take action to reopen the waterway.

“We can defeat that,” he said.

Mr. Panetta said closing the strait would draw a U.S. military response.

“We made very clear that the United States will not tolerate the blocking of the Strait of Hormuz,” he said. “That’s another red line for us and … we will respond to them.”

A number of experts say Iran is unlikely to close the strait, through which Gulf oil flows, because the action could hurt Iran as much as the West.

But a second Iranian newspaper, the Khorasan daily, on Sunday quoted a senior commander of the powerful Revolutionary Guard force as saying Tehran’s leadership has decided to order the closure of the strategic oil route if the country’s petroleum exports are blocked.

Iranian politicians have issued similar threats in the past, but this is the strongest statement yet by a top commander in the security establishment.

Associated Press writer Ali Akbar Dareini in Tehran contributed to this report.