Growing concern Israel may strike Iran this spring

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There is growing concern about an Israeli military strike against Iran to stop it from developing a nuclear weapon.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is quoted as saying it is likely Israel will launch the attack this spring. CBS News correspondent David Martin reports that Panetta believes specifically that there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June.

That quote came from columnist David Ignatius, writing shortly after he completed a trans-Atlantic flight with the defense secretary. Panetta, on Thursday, did not dispute it.

He noted that Israel has stated publicly that it is considering military action against Iran. He said the U.S. has "indicated our concerns."

As Panetta explained in an interview with "60 Minutes" an Israeli attack would almost certainly have consequences for the U.S.

"The United States could be targeted as a result of that," Panetta said. "We would get blame, whether they like it or not. We would get blame as to being involved."

Adding to U.S. concerns were a long day of strident warnings by Israeli officials at an international strategy conference near Tel Aviv about the dangers posed by Iran. At the conference, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Thursday that the world is increasingly ready to consider a military strike against Iran if economic sanctions don't halt Tehran's suspected nuclear program.

Yet Britain's Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg seemed ill at ease Thursday about a possible military conflict with Iran.

Clegg was quoted as telling The House Magazine, a weekly British political journal, that he feared Israel could carry out a pre-emptive strike on Iran amid suspicion in the West that Tehran is secretly developing nuclear weapons.

Speaking at the aforementioned strategy conference, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday warned Israel that the standoff over Tehran's nuclear program must be resolved peacefully.

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Clegg seems to concur that a peaceful solution is preferable, saying in the interview that Britain had been attempting to demonstrate "that there are very tough things we can do which are not military steps in order to place pressure on Iran."

Still, officials gathered at the Israeli strategy conference asserted that Iran has already produced enough enriched uranium to eventually build four rudimentary nuclear bombs and — in what would be an explosive new twist — was even developing missiles capable of reaching the United States.

In perhaps the most startling instance of saber-rattling, Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon, who heads the strategic affairs ministry and is a former commander of the military, said all of Iran's nuclear installations are vulnerable to military strikes.

Yaalon appeared to contradict assessments of foreign experts and Israeli defense officials that it would be difficult to strike sensitive Iranian nuclear targets hidden dozens of yards below ground.

Much of the attention at the conference focused on the heightened sanctions imposed on Iran by Europe and the United States.

Speaking of the U.S., the White House and congressional leaders have so far distanced themselves from a military solution to the Iranian nuclear problem.

A Senate panel is backing sweeping new penalties on Iran with lawmakers arguing the economic pressure will undercut Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

The Banking Committee approved the legislation Thursday by voice vote in a rare instance of bipartisanship. Democrats and Republicans said current U.S. and international penalties have hurt Iran financially, with the value of its currency plummeting. They said ratcheting up the sanctions would force Tehran to abandon its nuclear program.

The bill would target Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and companies involved in joint energy and uranium mining ventures with Tehran. It also would penalize companies and individuals that supply Iran with weapons that could be used against their citizens, such as rubber bullets.

Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported that officials in Israel — all of whom spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to discuss Iran — were concerned that the measures, while welcome, were constraining Israel in its ability to act because the world expected the effort to be given a chance.

Barak appeared to confirm this, suggesting that the sanctions needed to be given a chance to work. But he also said there was a growing sense around the world that failure would in effect justify military action.

"There is no argument about the intolerable danger a nuclear Iran (would pose) to the future of the Middle East, the security of Israel and to the economic and security stability of the entire world," Barak said.

"Today as opposed to in the past, there is a wide global understanding that Iran must be prevented from becoming nuclear and no option should be taken off the table... Today as opposed to in the past, there is wide world understanding that in the event that sanctions won't reach the intended result of stopping the military nuclear program, there will be need to consider action."

Israel has been a leading voice in calls to curb Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program, and the latest revelations could help generate further international support for moves against the Iranian regime. At the same time, there is growing international concern about a possible Israeli rogue attack on Iranian nuclear installations.

Iran denies it's trying to develop nuclear weapons, insisting it seeks nuclear power for nonmilitary uses. The International Atomic Energy Agency has said that some of Iran's alleged experiments can have no purpose other than developing nuclear weapons.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, who gave the final speech at the Herzliya conference, has said it's the responsibility of Iran to prove it is not pursuing nuclear weapons. "I believe they have not yet done so," he said after a meeting with Israel's prime minister in Jerusalem on Wednesday.