As Iran and Israel traded barbs over a dual bombing plot—including suspected "magnet bomb" attacks against Israeli diplomats in New Delhi and Tbilisi— U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Tehran Tuesday about its nuclear ambitions and support for terrorist organizations.
Panetta told lawmakers the Obama administration "will not tolerate" a nuclear-armed Iran, adding Washington must "do everything we can to prevent" Iran from fielding atomic weapons.
Rejecting the idea that the U.S. might allow Iran to acquire the bomb then follow up with a "containment" strategy, Panetta said the U.S. must "prevent" Tehran from building the bomb.
The defense chief tempered his forceful rhetoric by saying he supports the administration's sanctions-based effort that has worked through international entities to "pressure" Iran into scuttling its nuclear weapons ambitions.
But he sounded equally tough on Iran when he at several moments zeroed in on Tehran's alleged support of terrorist organizations.
For instance, Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat, pressed the secretary on whether Iran is providing significant support to terrorist groups or "just being pesky" with token assistance. Panetta responded sternly: "It's beyond pesky," telling Nelson that U.S. officials believe Iran is supplying terror outfits with weapons and other support.
A 2011 threat assessment prepared by the office of the Director of National Intelligence for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence concluded Iran is ramping up its "backing groups that oppose U.S. and Israeli interests."
Iran and Israel continued Tuesday to blame each other for a pair of suspected bombing attempts against Israeli diplomats in Georgia and India. Those targeted bombings came about a month after a blast killed a senior Iranian nuclear scientist. The flap has unnerved many regional experts who fear the bitter rivals are heading toward an armed conflict.
Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, raised concerns about reports that Israel likely will strike Iranian nuclear and other targets this spring. Panetta said the Obama administration believes Israeli officials have yet to make such a decision.
Several reports from the region on Tuesday described a tense exchange near the Strait of Hormuz, where several small, fast Iranian vessels swept close to several American Navy ships. MSNBC reported a U.S. helicopter fired flares into the water, which compelled the Iranian ships to leave the area.