ASHQELON, Israel—Israeli leaders dismissed the chances that a U.S.-led sanctions campaign would convince Iran to give up its nuclear program, but U.S. officials said they were hopeful Israel wasn’t planning a unilateral strike for now after receiving assurances the U.S. would be prepared to act militarily in the future.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surprised Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday with his public challenge to the Obama administration’s strategy, which has focused on diplomacy and sanctions rather than the threat of military action.
But a senior U.S. official said Thursday the U.S. and Israel appeared to be on the same page, at least in private. The official said Mr. Panetta and other officials, in talks in Jerusalem, made clear the Obama administration was prepared to take military action to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Any decision on a U.S.-led strike would depend on intelligence about Iran’s nuclear program and would only come once diplomatic options have been exhausted, officials said.
It is unclear whether the Israeli air force would be able to destroy many of Iran’s heavily fortified nuclear sites without U.S. help, U.S. and Israeli officials say.
“Right now the Iranian regime believes that the international community does not have the will to stop its nuclear program,” Mr. Netanyahu said in Jerusalem on Wednesday, with Mr. Panetta by his side. “This must change, and it must change quickly because time to resolve this issue peacefully is running out.”
Mr. Netanyahu said Iran didn’t appear to believe U.S. statements that all options were on the table.
“You yourself said a few months ago that when all else fails, America will act,” he said to Mr. Panetta. “But these declarations have also not yet convinced the Iranians to stop their program.”
Mr. Panetta, after greeting the prime minister warmly, appeared to have been taken aback by his sharp criticism of the U.S. The defense secretary, in his public remarks, took a more hawkish tone toward Iran, in an effort to ease Israeli concerns.
The friction over strategy underlines the Obama administration’s challenge in heading off a possible Israeli military strike on Iran, which could engulf the region in another major conflict and force the U.S. to act.
At the height of the U.S. presidential campaign, the Obama administration wants to keep Israel from starting a conflict but doesn’t want to appear weak or unsupportive of the country.
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who visited Israel this week, has sought to cast himself as a bigger supporter of Israel should it decide to strike Iran.
The Obama administration counters that it has increased security cooperation to new levels. On Wednesday, Mr. Panetta highlighted that cooperation with a visit to a U.S.-subsidized missile-defense system with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
U.S. officials say it is difficult to tell whether Israel is serious about attacking Iran or saber rattling in order to sustain the military threat and increase pressure on the U.S. and European Union to do more to curb Iran’s nuclear program—or both.
Mr. Netanyahu has also been grappling with a lack of consensus within Israel’s security establishment about the need to attack Iran anytime soon.
Mr. Netanyahu said in a television interview on Tuesday night that he hasn’t yet made a decision on an attack, trying to tamp down Israeli media reports that military Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and serving Mossad chief Tamir Pardo are opposed to an attack in the coming months. Mr. Netanyahu said the men should keep their assessments private.
In remarks at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem on Wednesday, Mr. Netanyahu said Mr. Panetta was correct when he said sanctions are having a “big impact” on the Iranian economy. “But unfortunately it is also true that neither sanctions nor diplomacy have yet had any impact on Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” Mr. Netanyahu added.
Mr. Panetta used unusually strong language to make the case that Mr. Obama will do what it takes to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons. Iran denies its program is intended to build a nuclear bomb. “We will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. Period,” he said. “We will exert all options.”
But Mr. Panetta added: “We have to exhaust every option, every effort, before we resort to military action.”
The U.S. position reflects a strategic Catch-22: While the Israelis say Iran will only give in if the U.S. makes the threat of attack real, doing so could limit the U.S.’s options by removing the element of surprise and potentially putting the U.S. on a path to war.
So far, talks with Iran, led by the U.S. and other major powers, have gone nowhere, U.S. officials acknowledge. But unlike the Israelis, the U.S. still holds out hope of progress as pressure builds. On Wednesday, the House voted 421-6 and the Senate voted unanimously to approve a round of sanctions on Iran that builds on current penalties targeting Tehran’s central bank.
Such focus on ramping up sanctions represent a challenge to Israeli efforts to prod the Americans to shift strategy.
That tension was evident when Defense Minister Barak said the probability is “extremely low” that U.S. and international sanctions will convince Iran’s religious rulers to give way on their nuclear program.
While Mr. Panetta has acknowledged Iran has yet to agree to give up its nuclear program, he has repeatedly said that the sanctions are working as intended and should be given more time.
That appeared to be a hard argument for Mr. Panetta to sell in Israel.
“We have clearly something to lose by this stretched time upon which sanctions and diplomacy takes place because the Iranian are moving forward” with their enrichment activities, Mr. Barak said at a joint news conference with Mr. Panetta after they toured the Iron Dome missile-defense battery on the outskirts of the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, five miles from the border with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Israel says the Iron Dome is the first missile-defense system capable of detecting and destroying short-range missiles in flight. The system, made by Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, is designed to intercept rockets with ranges of up to 44 miles, those typically used by Israel’s declared enemies Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon, and Hamas.
Mr. Panetta called Iron Dome a “game changer” for Israel’s security and said the U.S. intended to provide funding annually to support the system’s deployment in Israel.
The U.S. has so far committed $275 million to support the Iron Dome, which consists of arrays with about 20 rockets each, a command-and-control center and a radar facility. Each system can cover an area the size of a small city.
The Iron Dome’s radar detects rockets when they are launched. The command-and-control center then quickly determines whether to launch an interceptor missile. That depends if the missile is headed toward an area that is populated or has critical infrastructure.
Mr. Barak said the system has intercepted more than 100 rockets so far fired from Gaza and has a success rate of more than 80%.