Military action against Iran could have “unintended consequences” in the region, the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, said on Thursday, hours after Tehran warned that an attack against its nuclear sites would be met with “iron fists”.
Panetta, who took over the Pentagon’s top job in July, said he agreed with the assessment of his predecessor, Robert Gates, that a strike on Iran would only delay its nuclear programme, which the west believes is aimed at making an atomic bomb.
“You’ve got to be careful of unintended consequences here,” Panetta told reporters at the Pentagon.
“It could have a serious impact in the region, and it could have a serious impact on US forces in the region,” he said. “And I think all of those things, you know, need to be carefully considered.”
Tension over Iran’s nuclear programme has increased since Tuesday when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Tehran appeared to have worked on designing a bomb and may still be conducting secret research to that end.
Iran has warned that it will respond to any attacks by hitting Israel and US interests in the Gulf. Analysts say Tehran could retaliate by closing the Strait of Hormuz, the waterway where about 40% of all traded oil passes through.
“Our enemies, particularly the Zionist regime, America and its allies, should know that any kind of threat and attack or even thinking about any action will be firmly responded to,” Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on state television.
Last week, a US military official told a forum in Washington that he saw Iran as the top threat to America and its allies in the Middle East.
He pointed to concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme and also to accusations by the US that Iran plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington, an allegation Tehran has denied.
However, Panetta said military action remained a last resort in the US and Israeli view, and stressed Washington’s efforts to win tougher sanctions against Tehran.
“It is important for us to make sure we apply the toughest sanctions – economic, diplomatic pressures – on Iran to change their behaviour,” he said.
“And we are in discussions with our allies with regards to additional sanctions that ought to be placed on Iran.”
The European Union may approve fresh sanctions against Iran within weeks, EU diplomats said on Thursday.