Panetta told The Wall Street Journal this week U.S. forces were leading a multinational exercise in the United Arab Emirates through Feb. 7 that will improve the ability to intercept weapons, particularly portable anti-aircraft missiles, meant for militants in the region.
Panetta told the newspaper so-called manpad missile systems like the ones recently seized by Yemen were considered an escalation of gun running by Iran's Revolutionary Guard.
"There is no question when you start passing around manpads, that becomes a threat -- not just to military aircraft but to civilian aircraft," Panetta said. "That is an escalation."
Panetta, who is set to leave office, said the current exercises would particularly help regional allies block the flow of Iranian weapons to Islamic militants in the Middle East and a resurgent al-Qaida in North Africa.
The United States was ramping up its capabilities to address the upswing of militant activity in North Africa, but the logistics of establishing bases and intelligence assets in the remote region would take time, he said.
Panetta said France's campaign in Mali against al-Qaida Islamic Maghreb was a positive move toward blocking its expansion.
"They acted because of what they saw AQIM doing," Panetta said. "I think now, there really is a recognition that this is an opportunity now to be able to make sure that not only do we confine AQIM but ultimately we defeat them."