The top U.S. commander in the Middle East said Tuesday that the United States, alone, cannot stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, as Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta promised that military force against Iran remains an option if diplomacy fails.
The contrasting statements came a delicate time for Israel, as the Jewish state presses for U.S. assurances to strike suspected Iranian nuclear sites if Iran remains undeterred by diplomacy and tough international sanctions.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, is urging Israel to give more time to diplomacy.
Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, head of the U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States has few options to stop the Iranians from building an atomic bomb.
"The best we can do is to delay them,” he said. “Only the Iranian people can stop this program."
Meanwhile Tuesday, Mr. Panetta told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that the Obama administration will use military force if necessary.
”We want diplomacy to work. We will back this diplomacy with strong and increasing pressure, and we will keep all options - including military action - on the table to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon," he said.
"As the president has made clear, the United States does not bluff. The president has shown that we will do whatever is necessary to protect our people, to protect our allies and to protect our interests."
President Obama this week tried to reassure Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the United States will stand by Israel.
"The United States will always have Israel's back," Mr. Obama said Monday after meeting with Mr. Netanyahu at the White House.
Also on Monday, the Israeli leader addressed the AIPAC conference and warned that time is running out for Israel to decide whether to act alone against Iran.
"Israel has waited for diplomacy to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer,” he said.
Mr. Obama on Tuesday told reporters in Washington that he believes the West still has more time to stop Iran.
"This notion that somehow we have a choice to make in the next week or two weeks or month or two months is not borne out by the facts," he said.
At his AIPAC speech, Mr. Netanyahu dismissed arguments against a military strike in Iran.
"Some commentators would have you believe that stopping Iran from getting the bomb is more dangerous than letting Iran have the bomb,” he said.
"They say that a military confrontation with Iran would undermine the efforts already under way; that it would be ineffective; and that it would provoke an even more vindictive response by Iran. I've heard these arguments before.
"But when it comes to Israel's survival, we must always remain the masters of our fate."
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