Speaking to US service members and journalists aboard the USS Peleliu, an assault ship off the coast of California, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that Iran continues to be a threat to US interests.

“If Israel decides to go after Iran and we have to defend ourselves, we could be engaged sooner than any of us want,” he said Friday.

It was not clear whether Panetta was saying the United States would automatically be engaged if Israel would attack. It also is not clear if the Obama administration has plans to engage Iran.

“Our focus is on diplomacy and international pressure on Iran. I’m not going to speculate on what would happen in various scenarios other than to say that we will be ready,” Carl Woog, Panetta’s spokesman, said later.

“The secretary said we have plans for any contingency and we’re not going to speculate about timelines or future actions,” he added.