TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) - U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta acknowledged Monday that increasingly stiff international sanctions have yet to compel Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. But he argued that more pressure eventually would lead Iran to "do what's right."
Iran's disputed nuclear program, which Tehran contends is only for peaceful purposes, is a prominent backdrop to Panetta's five-day tour of the Middle East and North Africa. On Wednesday he'll be in Israel, whose leaders have said they are contemplating a military attack on Iran to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, a step they view as a threat to Israel's very existence.
The Obama administration wants Israel to give sanctions and diplomacy more time to steer Iran off its nuclear course, although Panetta repeated the administration's standard line that "all options" are on the table in the event that non-military pressure does not work.
"These sanctions are having a serious impact in terms of the economy in Iran," he told reporters during a visit to the North Africa American Military Cemetery, where 2,841 U.S. servicemen killed in the North Africa campaign against Nazi Germany in 1942-1943 are buried.
"And while the results of that may not be obvious at the moment, the fact is that they have expressed a willingness to negotiate (with the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China) and they continue to seem interested in trying to find a diplomatic solution," he said.
Those on-again, off-again negotiations have not come close to resolving a problem that U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has cast as one of the biggest failures of the Obama administration. Romney was in Israel this week showing support for Israel and asserting that if he were president Iran would never get the atomic bomb.
Panetta, who has declined to comment on Romney's visit to Israel, stuck to his argument that the administration's current approach is the right one.
"What we all need to do is to continue the pressure on Iran, economically and diplomatically ... to negotiate and to ultimately do what's right in joining the international family," he added.
After meeting in Tunis with the country's new Islamist leaders, Panetta was headed to Egypt for talks with its new Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, in Cairo, as well as Egyptian military leader Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi.
In his remarks at the U.S. military cemetery, Panetta said Washington plans to promote closer counterterrorism cooperation with Tunisia's new leaders. Panetta's press secretary, George Little, said the Pentagon chief also raised the idea of more U.S. assistance in securing Tunisia's border with Libya and in Tunisian maritime security. Little said specifics were not discussed.
Little said the U.S. is worried about the spread of al-Qaida's influence in North Africa, while adding that "the sense is that the threat here (in Tunisia) is not as great as elsewhere" in the region.
Tunisia was the launching pad for the wave of revolt that swept through the Arab world in 2011. It had one of the most repressive governments in the region. The uprising began in December 2010 when a fruit vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in the town of Sidi Bouzid to protest his lack of economic opportunity and the disrespect of the police.
The transition here from dictatorship to democracy has been smoother than in neighboring countries like Libya and Egypt, with no power-hungry military or armed militias to stifle the progress. But there is an increasingly bold ultraconservative Muslim minority who want to turn Tunisia into a strict Islamic state.