Making his Sunday show debut as secretary of defense, Leon Panetta said on CBS’ Face the Nation that the U.S. military is ready and able to stop Iran if it develops nuclear weapons or blocks the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s most important chokepoint for oil.
“You don’t take anything off the table,” Panetta said to host Bob Schieffer in response to his question whether the United States would react with military force to Iran.
Panetta said America will “keep up the diplomatic and economic pressure on them to force them to do the right thing.” The U.S. government recently imposed economic sanctions on Iran. Since then tensions between Iran, the United States and other major countries have caused oil prices to climb.
Panetta identified two actions Iran could take that would be “red lines” for the United States, actions that would compel the U.S. military to react.
Panetta said he knows Iran is developing a nuclear capability—but not necessarily a nuclear weapon. If it’s determined that Iran is building nuclear weapons, “that’s the red line for us.”
He and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey, who was also on the show, seemed to equivocate on whether the U.S. military has the capability to take out a nuclear-armed Iran.
“I certainly want them to believe that’s the case,” Dempsey said.
Panetta added: “They need to know that if they take that step that they’re going to get stopped.”
The other red line Panetta identified is if Iran blocked the Strait of Hormuz, which the country has threatened to do. The strait, located between Oman and Iran, connects the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea. Almost 17 million barrels per day of oil—almost 20 percent of all the oil traded worldwide—went through that strait in 2011, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.
Dempsey acknowledged that Iran has “invested in the capability that could in fact for a period of time block the Strait of Hormuz.” But he quickly said that the U.S. military has invested to ensure that “we can defeat that.”
“We will take action and reopen the strait,” Dempsey stressed.
Panetta’s and Dempsey’s appearance on Face the Nation comes just days after President Obama visited the Pentagon last week to unveil his administration’s new military blueprint. Adapting to the new era of shrinking budgets, the plan laid out broad strategies to cut $450 billion over a decade.
Panetta said America will remain the world’s strongest military power despite the cuts.
“This strategy is going to give us the flexibility to continue to remain the strongest military powering the world,” Panetta said.
He went on to stress that if and when military action is necessary, U.S. forces will be equipped and ready.
“The bottom line is when we face a new aggressor anywhere in the world we are going to be able to respond and defeat them,” Panetta said. “And that’s the lesson everyone ought to take home with them.”
Dempsey echoed Panetta’s sentiment and said the military expects to have to fight multiple conflicts.
“This isn’t about sizing ourselves against two particular scenarios,” Dempsey said. “This is about building a force being capable of doing more than one thing at a time.”