Panetta: Nuclear Iran is ‘unacceptable’

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said a nuclear-armed Iran would be “unacceptable,” but a senior House Democrat on Tuesday raised concerns about the growing drumbeat to confront Tehran.

“The United States does not want Iran to develop a nuclear weapon,” Panetta told “60 Minutes” on Saturday aboard his military aircraft. “Thats a red line for us and thats a red line, obviously, for the Israelis. If we have to do it, we will deal with it.”

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The Pentagon chief said if Iran really ramps up its nuclear weapons program, it could have such a weapon in a year.

“If they proceed and we get intelligence that they are proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon, then we will take whatever steps necessary to stop it,” Panetta said in an interview posted online.

Panetta’s comments are the latest muscular rhetoric to come from senior officials and lawmakers since a November International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report that concluded Tehran is closer than ever to having a nuclear weapon.

That raised eyebrows in Washington and across the West, largely because a 2007 U.S. intelligence assessment had stated that Iran had frozen its illicit arms program.

Since that IAEA report surfaced, lawmakers and some Obama administration officials have collectively increased calls to confront Iran and force it to halt the program.

Lawmakers worry a nuclear-armed Tehran might become wildly aggressive and even more unpredictable. They also are concerned what that could mean for an already volatile Middle East, as well as a regional nuclear arms race.

Lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle have since November suggested it’s time for the United States to consider using military force to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities — or assist Israel in doing so.

One pro-military House Democrat, however, warned on Tuesday against another war in the Middle East.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Defense, told The Hill he wonders if several issues — a military facing budget cuts, the end of the Iraq war and the winding down of the war in Afghanistan — are driving “all this talk about doing something about Iran.”

Moran said it appears there is a growing drumbeat on Capitol Hill in the wake of the IAEA’s findings to use military force to cripple Iran’s nuclear program.

The veteran lawmaker said there is another way to counter Iran.

“Experts keep telling us that it is apparent” that senior Iranian leaders “are opposing each other internally.”

Rather than launch a military operation — or assist an Israeli one — Moran said U.S. officials should allow Iran’s government to “fall apart under the weight of their own differences.”