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Remarks by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta En Route to Tunisia

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta
July 29, 2012

            SEC. PANETTA:  All right. Everybody ready? Okay, thanks.

            Let me - let me just give you a summary of the - what we're going to be doing on this trip and some of the places that we're going to be hitting.

            This - this trip comes at a critical time.  And there's a real confluence of challenges and opportunities in the Middle East and in North Africa. On the positive side, obviously we see the beginning of a peaceful democratic transition, both in Tunisia and Egypt. And yet, at the same time, we're obviously dealing with the continuing threat of extremism, of terrorism, of violence in Syria, and the continuing destabilizing behavior of Iran.

            The trip that we're - that we're on will encompass, I think, many of those challenges and opportunities.

            First I'll get the opportunity to consult with the new leadership in both Tunisia and Egypt, and then in Israel and Jordan, I hope to engage with our close allies who share our concerns over what's happening in Syria and how to confront Iran.

            At each stop, I will reaffirm the commitment of the United States to the stability of the Middle East and North Africa. Our goal is to advance security by supporting peaceful change throughout the region. This means we believe that establishing strong partnerships with new governments in the region.

            We're also strengthening our traditional alliances with countries like Israel and Jordan.  With Israel in particular, we have achieved a level of defense cooperation that is unprecedented in our history. And my goal is to deepen and strengthen that relationship even further.

            Tunisia. The visit to Tunisia is my first to that country as secretary of defense, frankly my first to the country of Tunisia itself. I want to commend the Tunisian people and the success of their revolution and to thank the Tunisian armed forces for the positive role that they played during that time of change.

            The United States continues to support efforts to strengthen Tunisia's democracy, and DoD will play an important effort - will play an important role in that effort.

            The United States and Tunisia have started to forge a new chapter in our defense relationship, and we’re prepared to partner more closely with them on a range of common regional security challenges.

            We also stand ready to support the Tunisian government's efforts to strengthen the capacity of their defense institutions. They have growing concerns about how to deal with Al Qaeda, how to deal with AQIM [Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], and they've also indicated growing concerns about how to protect their borders. So we hope to be discussing those areas in Tunisia.

            Egypt. Again, it's a country that I've gone to a number of times, both in my past capacities, and now, as secretary of defense, this is my second visit to Egypt.

            In the past year, as many of you know, I've maintained very close contact with Field Marshal Tantawi. My message has been consistent. We strongly support an orderly, peaceful, legitimate transition to a democratic system of government.

            The SCAF's [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] show of support for a secure, free and fair presidential election last month is a critical step in this process. 

            The Egyptian people should be proud of the progress that has been made on the road to democratic transition. I'm looking forward to meeting with President Morsi. I will urge the Egyptian government to continue the transition to full civilian rule to provide for as broad a coalition as possible within the government and to also express my commitment to a strong mil-to-mil relationship with Egypt.

            Israel. Again, a country that I've visited a number of times. This is my second visit to Israel as secretary of defense. We've had the opportunity over the past year to build a very close working relationship with Ehud Barak, the minister of defense. I've met with him probably more than any other foreign counterpart.

            I've also had the opportunity to meet with President Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu, both in Washington and in Jerusalem.

            This trip defines an opportunity to continue our regular dialogue on the full scope of regional security issues, from confronting the threat of violent extremism, concerns about Hezbollah, with the violence, obviously, in Syria to its impact on Israel's northern border; concerns, obviously, with security in the Sinai, to efforts by the international community to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

            I'm proud of the defense partnership that we've built over the last several years. The U.S.-Israel defense relationship, I believe, is stronger today than it has been in the past.

            One tangible sign of that cooperation is the support we've provided for Iron Dome, which has, I think, proven itself in saving Israeli lives.  We're committed to this system, and I'm looking forward to visiting an Iron Dome battery with Minister Barak to affirm that commitment.

            Lastly, in Jordan, again a country that I visited quite a bit - this is, however, my first trip to Jordan as secretary of defense. I've had the opportunity to meet with King Abdullah in Washington just in January of this year.

            The United States is committed to the security of Jordan and to a very close partnership with them to try to meet some very key common security challenges.

            The Department of Defense has reached unprecedented levels of cooperation with the Jordanian armed forces. We have done that in light of what's happening in Syria. We have - we have done that in a way to try to develop as close a partnership as possible to deal with any contingency that may happen there.

            The visit gives me an important opportunity to consult with their leadership at a very challenging time.  Both - both of our nations share concerns about what's happening in Syria and the impact that that could have on regional stability.

            We're working very closely with them, along with a lot of international and nongovernmental partners, to provide humanitarian assistance to support those that have been affected by violence in Syria. And we deeply appreciate Jordan's efforts to keep the borders open to those fleeing the violence in Syria.

            We hope to do everything we can, as I said, to strengthen that relationship even further, as we deal with the challenges we're confronting.

            As I said at the beginning, this is a critical time. My goal on this trip is to reinforce the key relationships that we have there so that we can ensure that every challenge becomes an opportunity for greater security and peace in the region.

            Q: Mr. Secretary, you mentioned several times Syria. Now that that regime is using helicopter gunships to put down the rebellion and kill civilians, do you think the time has come to consider more seriously a no-fly zone or some other form of military action?

            SEC. PANETTA: Well, it's pretty clear that Aleppo is, I think, another tragic example of the kind of indiscriminate violence that the Assad regime has committed against its own people. And in many ways, I think, if they continue this - this kind of tragic attack on their own people in Aleppo, I think that it ultimately will be a nail in Assad's coffin, that he's just assuring that the Assad regime will come to an end by virtue of the kind of violence that they're permitting against their own people.

            The United States and the international community has made very clear that this is intolerable and have brought their diplomatic and economic pressure on Syria to - to stop this kind of violence, to have Assad step down and to transition to a - a democratic form of government.

            The - the key - the key right now is to continue to bring that pressure on Syria, to provide assistance to the opposition, and to provide whatever kind of humanitarian aid we can to assist the refugees and to not - not do anything to show that the international community is other than unified in the effort to bring the Assad regime down. I think that - that's the key right now to dealing with the tragedy of Aleppo.

            Q: On Aleppo, before, you said, on Jordan, you would be talking about the spillover onto security in the region. Can you please explain a little bit what that might be and where do you see Syria evolving (inaudible) and the impact it would have on the countries in the short term?

            SEC. PANETTA: There are two areas we've been particularly concerned about with regards to Syria. One is chemical and biological weapon sites that we think are extremely important to secure and make sure that none of that falls into the wrong hands. And we've been in close coordination with countries in the region to ensure that's happening.

            And the other area is with regards to humanitarian assistance. We've-- we've been working with both Turkey and Jordan with regards to assisting them on providing humanitarian aid and doing what is necessary to deal with the refugee flows that come from those countries. So obviously part of my discussion in Jordan will be what we can do to try to assist them in that area.

            MR. LITTLE:  Adam.

            Q: Thank you.

            You mentioned that the attacks in Aleppo are putting the nails in his coffin. And I just wonder why you feel that way. You haven't outlined any new steps that the U.S. is going to take in order to bring that day closer, or do you just feel that he's only got months left under the pressure that's being exerted on his now?

            SEC. PANETTA: I think it's pretty clear that what Assad has been doing to his own people, and what he continues to do to his own people, makes clear that his regime is coming to an end. It's lost all legitimacy. And the more violence he engages in, the more he makes the case that that regime is coming to an end. And I think Aleppo is another example of indiscriminate violence against his own people that just makes very clear that he has lost all credibility to lead that country.

            And I think what we've seen over the last few weeks tells me that - that, you know, the level of violence, what we've seen in terms of the opposition continuing to exert itself, all of these factors just make clear to me that it's no longer a question of whether he's coming to an end, it's when.

            STAFF: Anybody to the secretary's left - Okay. Okay, Paul.

            Q: Mr. Secretary, you said that one of your goals in Israeli is to sort of deepen and strengthen the defense relationship. What specifically are you - what's your message, what can you offer them that will sort of deepen and strengthen the relationship?

            SEC. PANETTA: Well, it - you know, obviously we have a relationship on a number of fronts in terms of assistance that we've provided, but the most recent example of that is providing the assistance on Iron Dome. Iron Dome is - is something that we believe prevents war, because it provides the kind of very critical defense that Israel needs in the event that it would face missiles from some of their enemies in the region.

            So, it - the key to Iron Dome is that it defends and protects civilian lives. And that's the kind of emphasis that I think we need to focus on not just now but in the months to come.

            Q: Do you believe that Iron Dome is a system that can provide the kind of safety and security available against a possible Iranian threat?

            SEC. PANETTA: Well, it certainly can provide a very effective defense against wherever the missiles might come from, whether it's from Hezbollah, from Lebanon, from Iran. It has proven itself as a system in terms of its ability to hit missiles that are incoming into Israel. It's done it very effectively. And we think the more - the more we can support them in building that kind of defense system, the more we can send a clear signal to others that Israel is going to be able to defend itself effectively against those kinds of attacks.

            Q:  Mr. Secretary, Prime Minister Netanyahu today is quoted as telling Mr. Romney that the strategy of sanctions is not working to stop Iran. What is going to be your message to the Israelis?  And will there be words of caution for them?

            SEC. PANETTA: Well, you know, I think the president has made clear that the United States stands with Israel and the international community in making very clear that we will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. And I think it's been - it's been important to that effort to show that the international community remains unified, has brought some very heavy sanctions against Iran for their continued nuclear development, sanctions that are having a significant impact on their economy and that the result of that has been to - to I think convince them that, you know, they should participate in an effort, negotiating effort to try to resolve these issues.

            This hasn't been easy, it's been tough. But I think - I think the fact is that when the United States, Israel and the international community remain unified in opposition against Iran, that's the best way to convince Iran to pull back from what they're doing and to abide by international rules and regulations.

            Q: One of the - Mr. Romney's top advisers said in Israel today that - that if Israel chose to attack Iran on its own the governor would support that decision. I'd be curious what - what the administration's view is on that. And also more to the point, where do you - where do you think Israel is right now in that calculation? You talk to Barak all the time your advisers always tell us, so where do you think they are right now?

            SEC. PANETTA: First and foremost, I'm not going to comment on what political candidates say or don't say. But with regards to, you know, where Israel is right now, my view is that they have not made any decisions with regards to Iran and that they continue to support the international effort to bring pressure against Iran to pull back from their effort to develop their nuclear capability.

            MR. LITTLE: Kevin.

            Q: Maybe you don't want to comment on what the candidates may say, but you've been a candidate yourself plenty and now you're a security man. Do you have any thoughts on just the fact of Romney making this trip, of making these comments creating any kind of daylight between, you know, a unified U.S. front in Israel. Is this fair game?

            SEC. PANETTA: You know, I'm just not going to get into that game of commenting on what candidates do. You know, as secretary of defense I have a responsibility to defend the security of our country.  And in order to do that I've got to have the support of both Democrats and Republicans to get that accomplished. And for that reason I try my best not to get involved in the politics of the moment.

            MR. LITTLE: Jim.

            Q: Mr. Secretary, just taking you back to Tunisia and Egypt for a little bit. The United States military has had a pretty robust exercise program and military - military context, especially in Egypt, but to a certain extent Tunisia. Do you anticipate it returning to the same level of exercises? Do you see U.S. service members in operations in Tunisia, in Egypt in the near future?

            SEC. PANETTA: Well, you know, part of our new defense strategy is aimed at developing the kind of rotational deployments that can provide training assistance, but also build alliances and partnerships with countries and develop their capabilities. And so we will - you know, we'll look for opportunities to do that not only there but in other parts of the world.  It's - I think this is a really innovative strategy, it's an innovative part of the strategy we've developed and one that we're going to continue to pursue.

            MR. LITTLE: Any final questions?

            Barbara, and then Elizabeth and then maybe one more and we'll wrap it up. Okay, all right. We'll start with Elizabeth

            Q: To follow up on Iran just to make sure. Are you going to urge restraint in Israel with - I mean, I assume so?

            SEC. PANETTA: Again - again as the president has made clear, you know, we respect their sovereignty and their ability to make decisions with regards to their own security. At the same time, I have to tell you we have developed a very close partnership with regards to dealing with threats in the region, including to dealing with Iran. And my goal, frankly, is to strengthen that partnership so that we can - we can be fully prepared to deal with any contingency that may happen.

            MR. LITTLE:  Okay, Barbara?

            Q: You were talking about Jordan and the chemical weapons. You said that you were - actually you started by saying you were going to work with the Jordanians to deal with any contingencies that might happen vis-a-vis Syria. And then you went on to say that it's important that the chemical weapons as they are important and we've been close to protect - we've been in close coordination to secure that is happening.

            So can you tell us what contingencies you're working on with the Jordanians? And when you say it is happening, is something happening right now to try and protect the chemical weapon sites?

            SEC. PANETTA: I don't want to go into, you know, particulars with regards to, you know, some of the more specific steps that we're taking, but I think it's fair to say that we have been in very close consultation with the - with Jordanians, with Turkey, with other allies in the region to ensure that we are closely monitoring the situation with regards to those chemical weapons.

            Our - my specific goal is to make sure that they are being secured and that they don't fall into the wrong hands. And, you know, we've developed a very close and cooperative relationship that I think is helping us closely monitor that situation.

            MR. LITTLE: Adam and then I think that'll wrap it up.

            Q: Just to follow up again on what Elizabeth was asking. The four previous trips - and you and your predecessor would often say that there's a lot of concern about the unintended consequences should Israel decide to strike. And we didn't hear that expressed here. Is there - is that still a big concern that you're going to be expressing to the Israelis as has been expressed in the-- during, you know, your previous trip here?

            And also you mentioned sanctions. And you said that they're biting and trying to convince the Iranians to come back to the table. But per what Bibi Netanyahu was saying, do you actually think that these sanctions are getting the leadership to rethink the nuclear program itself?

            SEC. PANETTA: First of all, you know, with regards to the sanctions, the sanctions are - you know, in these next few weeks they're going to be ratcheting up to a whole new level of impact. And I think are going to, you know, have an even stronger economic impact on Iran.

            And basically it's sending a very strong message to them that they can't continue to do what they're doing, that you know they have a responsibility now to sit down and engage in a diplomatic effort to resolve these issues, to end their enrichment process and to -- and to abide by international rules.

            And I really do believe that the unity of the international community and many of the Arab countries in that region are all sending the same message to Iran. They continue to increasingly isolate themselves. They continue to increasingly isolate themselves. And I think - I think the effort, the international effort has been effective in making clear to Iran that they can't continue to do what they're doing.

            Now, with regards to, you know, the situation with - you know, between Israel and Iran, you know, my view is that when I sit down with my counterparts in Israel that we are unified in our view with regards to Iran. We're unified in the position that they should not obtain a nuclear weapon. We're unified in our position that we have to bring every bit of pressure we can on them to change their ways.

            And my goal, frankly, is to continue to strengthen that cooperation and partnership, because I think the more we are working together, the more unified we are in the effort against Iran, the better off we will be in convincing Iran that there is no room here for them to do anything other than to back away from their nuclear program that they're engaged in.

            MR. LITTLE: Thank you, everyone. Thank you, Mr. Secretary.