Pentagon has military plans ready to prevent nuclear Iran, says Panetta

The Pentagon has a plan ready for military action to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but the United States and its allies remain focused on reaching a diplomatic solution, according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. 

“The international community’s been unified [and] . . . we are prepared for any contingency in that part of the world. But our hope is that these matters can be resolved diplomatically," Panetta said during an interview on ABC's This Week. 

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When asked if the Defense Department has plans in place to support or carry out a military strike against nuclear development sites in Iran, Panetta replied that the Pentagon will be ready if the White House makes that call. 

"One of the things that we do at the Defense Department, Jake, is plan. And . . . we have plans to be able to implement any contingency we have to in order to defend ourselves," Panetta said. 

"We will do everything we can to prevent [Iran] from developing a weapon," he added. 

The Defense chief's comments come days after emissaries from Iran and the P5+1 group — the five permanent United Nations Security Council members and Germany -- agreed to hold yet another round of talks in Russia this June. 

The agreement was one of the few results reached at the conclusion of last week's discussions in Iraq. Previous rounds of negotiations have yielded little progress, except to lead to further dialogue between Iran and the West.

At the heart of these talks is a dispute over whether Iran's ongoing nuclear program is geared toward building a nuclear weapon. Tehran claims the program is strictly designed for peaceful energy purposes. 

However, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime has repeatedly shunned UN inspectors from chronicling Iran's nuclear work, opting to keep the program shrouded in secrecy. 

In February, Panetta told Congress there has been no evidence the Iranian program has crossed any one of the red lines established by the United States. 

Red lines are essentially internationally-imposed limits on how far Iran can go in terms of advancing their nuclear program. Should Iran’s nuclear program progress past any one of these restrictions, it could trigger a military response by either Washington or its allies. 

A long-standing red line set by the United States is that Tehran cannot move their self-proclaimed nuclear enrichment program into a full-fledged weapons development effort. 

However, Iran's push to acquire highly-enriched nuclear material has inched the Islamic country closer and closer to that specific red line. 

Iran claims it is not seeking nuclear material enriched past 20 percent. Nuclear material enriched by 20 percent can only be used for energy purposes. Fissile material, such as uranium, must be enriched by 90 percent for use in a nuclear weapon. 

But last Wednesday, Iran announced the addition of 20 new centrifuges at its underground nuclear facility in Qom. Those new centrifuges could allow Iran to obtain weapons-grade nuclear material. 

During the last round of international talks in Baghdad, Iran proposed a plan to address the issue of enrichment levels that included "their assertion that we recognize their right to enrichment," European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told reporters last Thursday.