US: Iran a year away from nukes, strike 'not off the table'

US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta gestures as he prepares to depart Tripoli, December 17, 2011 (Reuters / Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Pool)
Washington is not ruling out a military operation against Tehran if it gets wind of an Iranian nuke program, declared US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. The US believes Iran could develop a nuclear bomb in under a year.

­Just two weeks ago, Panetta discouraged Israel from attacking Iran in the wake of a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which raised concerns that the Iranian nuclear program was veering off the civilian path. But on Monday, Panetta told CBS that the military option “was not off the table” if the US learns of nuclear weapons being built in Iran.

The United States does not want Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. That's a red line for us and that's a red line, obviously, for the Israelis,” the US Defense Secretary told CBS in a preview of “60 Minutes.”

If they proceed, and we get intelligence that they are proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon, then we will take whatever steps necessary to stop it,” he added.

Iran has accumulated enough material and technology to assemble a nuclear bomb in about one year, added the US Defense Secretary. If Tehran has a "hidden facility somewhere,” Panetta says, that could speed up the process.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak expressed similar determination, saying Tel Aviv and Washington would do whatever it takes to obstruct Iran’s nuclear intentions.

"Our two countries clearly believe that a nuclear Iran is neither conceivable nor acceptable,” Barak told Israeli public radio on Sunday.  

Though earlier this month Barak ruled out a strike on Iran, in Sunday's interview he reiterated “the fact that we must not take any option off the table."

Iran denies the pursuit of any military objective in enriching uranium. But according to a leaked April 2010 US Department of Defense assessment of Iran's military capability, the veil of mystery over its nuclear plans plays to Tehran’s advantage. As Iran’s military can only afford the defense, the uncertainty Iran keeps up around the nuke question is a part of a “deterrent strategy” the country has adopted in the face of “external or ‘hard’ threats from the US and Israel.

Meanwhile, American and European diplomats met in Italy on Tuesday to discuss further sanctions on the Persian country. The meeting was joined by Canada, Australia, Japan, and South Korea, and sought to halt Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons. The group has called for further pressure on Iran, until the country restarts peace talks with the international community. The statement comes despite the fact that the Iranian envoy to the UN has offered to allow IAEA officials to visit the county in order to solve any outstanding problems.