Panetta warns Iran U.S. military 'prepared' to prevent nukes

ASHKELON, Israel — In some of his most hawkish language to date, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned Iran not to seek nuclear weapons and indicated that the U.S. was prepared to use a military attack to stop Tehran.

"They have a choice to make," Panetta said. "If they make the decision to proceed with a nuclear weapon ... we have options that we are prepared to implement to ensure that that does not happen."

Panetta repeatedly referenced U.S. "options" for Iran, including military ones, during a press conference in the middle of a plowed field about five miles from Gaza. He insisted economic sanctions, like the additional ones President Obama authorized on Monday, were pressuring Iran, but showed a tougher sounding tone than the more patient remarks that have preceded his Israel visit.

Behind the secretary and Israeli Defense Minister Barak stood an Iron Dome missile defense battery, which five weeks ago shot down rockets launched from within Gaza into Israel. President Obama on Monday released $70 million in additional funds for the system, a move Panetta claimed demonstrates the U.S.-Israel relationship is stronger than ever.

Countering Mitt Romney's recent assertions here that the U.S. Is not doing enough -- including militarily -- to support Israel or pressure Iran, Barak said the "special relationship" with the U.S. military was stronger than its ever been.

"This is the strongest alliance that we have," Panetta added, before leaving for additional meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres.

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