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Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta Interview with Al Hurra Television

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta
March 16, 2012

             Q:  Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for being with Al Hurra.  I would like to start by asking you about what's the purpose of your visit to the UAE, and do you think that the GCC is concerned about Iran's influence -- Iran's nuclear program in the region?  (Continues in Arabic.) 

            SECRETARY LEON PANETTA:  The purpose of my visit is to reaffirm the strong relationship that we have with the UAE [United Arab Emirates].  They're one of our strongest allies in the region.  We work very closely with them on a number of areas.  And what I'm here to do is to, again, confirm that relationship, talk with them about some of the issues that obviously are impacting the region.  You mentioned one of them, Iran, and that they have concerns with regards to the situation there.  And we'll have a good discussion on that as well as the situation in Syria.  I'm sure we'll discuss that as well.

             Q:  What do you think -- do you think the policy of sanctions -- what has this policy achieved in regards to the Iranian nuclear program?  (Continues in Arabic.)

             SEC. PANETTA:  You know, for the first time, I think, in a very long time, the international community is unified with regards to its policy towards Iran.  It's very -- it's very clear, the message from the international community, that Iran should not develop a nuclear weapon and that it must become part of the family of international nations and abide by international rules.  That's the main message. 

             And the international community has said that because of the behavior of Iran, we're going to make very clear that that has to change.  So it's applied some very strong economic sanctions, very strong diplomatic sanctions, the strongest, I think, that have ever been applied against a nation. 

             And the result is that it's impacting on Iran.  It's impacting on their economy, it's impacting on their quality of life, it's impacting on their business community, it's impacting on their energy community, and I think as a result, it is putting pressure on them, isolating them and making it very clear to them that they have to change their ways?

             Q:  When you say Iran shouldn't get the nuclear bomb, do you know if Iran is close to getting it, first?  And do you think the Iranian nuclear weapon is an imminent threat?  (Continues in Arabic.)

             SEC. PANETTA:  I think the intelligence is clear that they have not made a firm decision to proceed with the development of a nuclear weapon.  They do, however, continue to develop their nuclear processing capabilities.  They do enrichment, and they're continuing to locate additional enrichment facilities.  All of that concerns us.  We want to be able to have the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], the nuclear agency, be able to go in, to be able to look at their facilities to determine whether or not they are abiding by international rules and international norms.

             They have resisted that ability to inspect those facilities.  We think they should.  If their purposes are peaceful, if their purposes are to develop nuclear power for domestic reasons, then they shouldn't be afraid to allow the IAEA to do its inspection.

             Q:  Mr. Secretary, Iran is not the only country in the region who has a nuclear weapon.  Pakistan has also a nuclear bomb.  Why not -- why the Obama administration cannot live with a nuclear Iran?  (Continues in Arabic.)

             SEC. PANETTA:  The concern is this, that Iran continues to try to destabilize nations, particularly in this region.  They promote terrorism. They have supported terrorist activities throughout the region.  They continue to be a destabilizing force in this area.  And because obviously their intent and their purpose is not to promote stability in this region, for them to obtain a nuclear weapon would be extremely dangerous because it would virtually allow terrorism, then, to have the ability to use a nuclear weapon.  That's dangerous.

             Q:  Mr. Secretary --

             Q:  Lately you were very specific about when Israel is going to attack Iran.  Do you think now the probability that Israel could attack Iran has increased?  (Continues in Arabic.)

             SEC. PANETTA:  I -- as the president -- President Obama has stated and I agree, we do not believe Israel has made a decision to do that.  And as you know, we've engaged in a number of hearings with Prime Minister Netanyahu and have been very clear to him that we have the same concerns as Israel with regards to Iran and their -- and their developing a nuclear weapon, but that the international community is unified in putting pressure on Iran and that Israel should operate with the international community in increasing that pressure on Iran.  That's the better way to go right now. 

             We think we have the room and the space to try to conduct diplomacy.  Military action should always be a last resort.  That's our system.

             Q:  Are you confident that Israel will not go unilaterally and attack Iran?  And if Israel will go and attack Iran, does the United States -- will the United States intervene with Israel?  (Continues in Arabic.)

             SEC. PANETTA:  Obviously Israel is an independent country, and they'll make whatever decisions they make on their own based on what they think is in their national interests.  If they should make that decision, then obviously the United States will -- would take action to protect our facilities in this area and protect our interests in this area.

             Q:  Before going to another subject, discussing Syria, why is this impossible to reach a deal, solution with the Iranian government?  (Continues in Arabic.) 

             SEC. PANETTA:  Well, there have been efforts to try and negotiate on these issues, and unfortunately they have led nowhere.  In order to be able to reach a deal, it takes two parties who are willing to engage in honest, direct and open discussions regarding this issue.  I think if they are willing to do that, if they are willing to really sit down and negotiate (in seriousness ?) over this very difficult and complicated issue, that obviously that would be the better approach.  But the window for that kind of diplomatic solution, as pointed out by the president and by the prime minister of England, that window is closing.  They have to -- they have to show a willingness to negotiate on these issues and do that soon. 

             Q:  I would like to ask you about Syria.  Do you still believe that it's pretty much -- (inaudible) -- to intervene militarily in Syria?  (Continues in Arabic.) 

             SEC. PANETTA:  Again, I believe that the best course of action is to maintain the international pressure against Syria.  Again, the international community has been unified, along with the Arab League, in applying sanctions against Syria, making very clear that Assad should step down and allow the Syrian people to control their destiny.  This is the main message. 

             We should continue to apply that pressure, continue to use every avenue to try to make very clear to Assad that it is important for him to now step down, to allow the people of Syria to come together and develop the institutions of government that will allow their people to freely exercise the kind of rights that the Syrian people are entitled to.

             Q:  Mr. Secretary, historically the United States is -- has always or used to follow Turkey and Saudi Arabia in dealing with a regional crisis.

             Why not this time the United States didn't follow -- doesn't follow -- didn't follow the Saudi position in regards to arming the rebels in Syria?  (Continues in Arabic.)

             SEC. PANETTA:  Again, I think that the United States believes that it is -- the international community ought to decide what steps should be taken with regards to Syria.  The Arab League has provided leadership on this issue.  As with Libya, it was because the international community was unified, the Arab League was unified with the international community that we ultimately were able to bring down Gadhafi and allow the Libyan people to have Libya.  I think it's going to take that kind of international cooperation working with the Arab League to develop what steps need to be taken now to assure that Assad steps down.

             Q:  Now we are in the Gulf, in the -- in the -- in the UAE.  Would you -- would you ask the GCC to take the -- to take the initiative and create a military coalition to resolve the Syrian crisis?  (Continues in Arabic.)

             SEC. PANETTA:  Again, we think it's important to work with the Arab League in deciding what the next steps are.  We do believe that continuing to put pressure on Syria, both diplomatic and economic, is the better course right now.

             You know, anytime people talk about military action, you have to understand what are the consequences of that.  What -- who is the opposition in Syria?  Who do you help?  What are the -- what are the consequences of taking steps like that?  Those are -- those are serious considerations.

             It's not to say that, you know, options -- all options should be on the table.  But I think right now the better course is for the international community and the Arab League to continue to apply strong diplomatic, economic sanctions, to try to get the U.N. to agree that Assad should step down and that the people of Syria should have the opportunity to govern themselves.

             Q:  You've mentioned consequences.  Do you know what -- to what extent can Syria and Iran retaliate in case of a military intervention in Syria?  (Continues in Arabic.)

             SEC. PANETTA:  It's -- of course, anytime you contemplate military action, you have to consider what are the consequences, what are the ramifications.  And as I pointed out in testimony on -- in the Congress, if we were to -- there were suggestions in the Congress that we should do targeted bombing in Syria.  But Syria does have a very strong air defense system, and that would have to be taken out before you could do that.  That kind of system is located in populated areas, and clearly, there would be a lot of collateral damage if that took place.  So it's those kinds of considerations that have to be thought seriously about.  People who urge military action have to understand that before you take that step, you better understand where that -- where does -- where does that kind of action lead.

             Q:  You've met with the prime minister, Netanyahu, and the defense minister, Ehud Barak.  Have you noticed that Israel has -- is concerned a little bit about a regime change in Syria?  (Continues in Arabic.)

             SEC. PANETTA:  You know, anytime a leader steps like down like Assad, there are always questions about who will take that person's place.  But one thing is for sure, that by virtue of the Syrian government killing a large number of Syrian people that this government has been engaged in, that it has lost its legitimacy as a government, and Assad has lost his legitimacy as a leader.

             When you kill your own people, you reach a point where you have lost your ability to truly govern.  And I think that's happened in Syria.  And the result will be that opposing forces will then have to come together, as they did in Libya, to establish, hopefully, a coalition, a council that can ultimately help decide who should govern that country in the future. That would be much better for the Syrian people than the kind of killing that's going on right now.

             Q:  Are you concerned -- I have two last questions.  Are you concerned about the rise of the Islamists and the Salafists in Egypt and in Libya?  How do you see that?  (Continues in Arabic.)

               SEC. PANETTA:  You know, the one thing you learn is that when a country decides to move towards democracy and allow all people to participate in that government, there are going to be different views.  There are going to be different ideologies that may be represented in that government.  But at the same time, giving all people the ability to participate makes clear that even though there may be some extreme ideologies that are there, that ultimately people recognize that the best way to govern is close to the center, not to the extremes.

             Q:  Last question, Mr. Secretary.  It's about the Quran burning in Bagram base.  You know this incident had caused a lot of anger among -- not only among the Afghan people but with the Arab world.  How would you address that?  (Continues in Arabic.)

             SEC. PANETTA:  Yeah, this was a terrible -- a terrible incident that took place.  I think it was a terrible mistake that was made.  And both the president as well as I and the secretary of state have apologized to the Afghan people for what took place, and we made clear that we will fully investigate this matter and that we will take action against those that are involved and hold them accountable. 

             This does not represent, I think, the vast majority of the good men and women in uniform that serve in Afghanistan and that serve alongside the Afghan army and their soldiers.  This is -- this is not reflective of the behavior of most of our men and women, who truly believe that we must respect the sovereignty and the culture of Afghanistan in order for it to be able to succeed as a country.

             Q:  Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for being with Al Hurra.

             SEC. PANETTA:  Thanks.

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