NPR logo Clinton's Iran Comments Irk Israel


Clinton's Iran Comments Irk Israel

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to foreign ministers from Southeast Asian nations during a meeting in Phuket, Thailand, on Wednesday. Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty Images

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to foreign ministers from Southeast Asian nations during a meeting in Phuket, Thailand, on Wednesday.

Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty Images

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a new caution Wednesday to Iran about its nuclear ambitions: If the Islamic republic keeps pursuing nuclear weapons, she says the U.S. is ready to build up the military capacities of its allies in the Persian Gulf to meet the threat.

"If the U.S. extends a defense umbrella over the region, if we do even more to support the military capacity of those in the Gulf, it's unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer because they won't be able to intimidate and dominate as they apparently believe they can once they have a nuclear weapon," Clinton said.

The remarks, made during a television talk show in Thailand, prompted an uneasy response from Israel.

"I think that's a mistake," said Dan Meridor, Israel's minister of intelligence and atomic energy, adding that it suggests that the U.S. has come to terms with the idea that Iran will eventually be a nuclear-armed state.

Clinton also reiterated President Obama's policy that talks were still an option between the U.S. and Iran, but that "crippling action" could also be considered.

Clinton later clarified her remarks, saying she was not announcing a change in U.S. policy. "I am simply pointing out that Iran needs to understand that its pursuit of nuclear weapons will not advance its security," she said. "It faces the prospect, if it pursues nuclear weapons, of sparking an arms race in the region."

Both the U.S. and Israel have long said that it would be unacceptable for Iran to attain nuclear weapons capability. Iran continues to say that its nuclear program is designed only for peaceful purposes.

Not A New Idea

Flynt Leverett, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., says the idea of providing a defense umbrella over the Gulf is not a new proposal from Clinton.

She discussed the idea during her primary campaign against Obama and has mentioned it since.

Leverett says the fact that Clinton is returning to the idea now suggests that it may be getting "quiet consideration in some parts of the administration."

He says Meridor's reaction shows Israel's unease over any sign that the U.S. would consider allowing a nuclear-armed Iran.

"The Israelis' preferred way to stop it would be to launch a military strike. For them, this is troubling because it raises questions about whether the U.S. would ever be willing to launch a strike or to let them do it."

Robert Malley, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, says Clinton's comments do not mean that the U.S. is giving in to the inevitability of a nuclear-armed Iran. But Clinton's remarks and Meridor's response do reflect a more general unease in U.S.-Israeli relations.

"There's a sense of distrust that's creeping into the relationship, even on issues where the two nations see eye to eye."

New Concerns Over North Korea And Myanmar

Clinton also had warnings for North Korea and Myanmar as she attended the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Phuket, Thailand.

In an interview with NPR's Michele Kelemen, Clinton said the U.S. is concerned about reports that North Korea is cooperating militarily with the rulers of Myanmar, also known as Burma.

She said she has worked with her counterparts from China, India and Russia to make it clear to Myanmar "that they are expected to comply also with the U.N. Security Council resolution that was crafted to prevent the import of technology."

Clinton was referring to a situation earlier this summer, when the U.S. Navy tracked a North Korean vessel that was thought to be on its way to Myanmar, possibly with weapons on board. That ship inexplicably turned back to North Korea without calling at any port.

"You have to assume that North Korea would sell anything to anybody if they could find a market for it," Clinton said.

Myanmar is a member of ASEAN, and its foreign minister is taking part in the same security meeting that Clinton is attending in Thailand.