Panetta meeting Israeli officials amid Iran nuclear tensions

WASHINGTON. August 1. KAZINFORM U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta met his Israeli counterpart on Wednesday just days after presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney visited Jerusalem and pledged to support any measures to keep Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, according to CNN.

"The defense ties between Israel and the United States are stronger and tighter than they have ever been," Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, said at the meeting with Panetta in Tel Aviv.

The visit is part of Panetta's weeklong trip to the Middle East  and North Africa. He will meet with President Shimon Peres later Wednesday.

Iran's controversial nuclear program, which Tehran insists is for peaceful purposes, is likely to be high on the agenda in the meetings. Many Western countries, particularly Israel, fear the program is a cover for Iran to develop atomic weapons.

There are concerns that the window for a diplomatic solution to the problem may be closing, and a military strike by Israel against Iran's nuclear program may be on the horizon.

Peres said last week that Iran was in an "open war" with Israel after he pointed the finger at Iran and Hezbollah for a bus bombing in Bulgaria last month that killed five Israelis.

On Sunday, at the start of his Middle East visit, Panetta reiterated the position of President Barack Obama on the matter.

"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," he said.

"This hasn't been easy. It's been tough," Panetta said. "But I think the fact is that when the United States, Israel and the international community remain unified in our position against Iran, that that's the best way to convince Iran to pull back from what they are doing and to abide by international rules and regulations."

Strong support for Israel is a core element of U.S. policy in the Middle East, and the two countries collaborate on military planning and research.

During his visit Wednesday, Panetta is scheduled to see a tangible result of that cooperation up close: the Iron Dome, a missile defense system for Israel that received significant funding from the U.S. government.

The U.S. defense secretary will take a tour of the system's radar facility in the company of Barak, his Israeli counterpart. The two officials will then give a briefing to the news media.

Panetta's tour of the Middle East has already touched on a number of sensitive foreign policy issues in the region.

On Monday, he expressed confidence that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria will eventually be forced out of power by the bloody civil war raging in the country.

"I'm sure that deep down Assad knows he's in trouble and it's just matter of time before he has to go," Panetta said while in Tunisia. "I would say if you want to be able to protect yourself and your family, you better get the hell out now."

And on Tuesday, he met with the first democratically elected president in Egypt's history, Mohammed Morsy, who is struggling to counterbalance the influence of the country's military rulers.

The powerful Supreme Council of the Armed Forces wields legislative power, having ordered the dissolution of parliament after the country's highest court ruled that it had been elected under invalid laws.

Morsy tried to call it back into session, but the court reaffirmed its decision, so the military council retains lawmaking powers until a new parliament is sworn in near the end of the year.

Panetta also met with Egypt's longtime top military leader, Field Marshal Muhammad Tantawi, who has played a key role in running the country since the fall of the strongman ruler Hosni Mubarak last year.

"Based on what I've seen and the discussions I've had ... President Morsy and Field Marshal Tantawi have a very good relationship and are working together towards the same end," Panetta said Tuesday.

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