Clinton Says Iran Could Trigger Nuclear Arms Race

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gives her autograph to students in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. i i

hide captionSecretary of State Hillary Clinton gives her autograph to students Tuesday after speaking at the Dar al-Hekma college for women in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

AFP/Getty Images
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gives her autograph to students in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gives her autograph to students Tuesday after speaking at the Dar al-Hekma college for women in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

AFP/Getty Images

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Tuesday that Iran's nuclear program could trigger an arms race in the Middle East as she traded barbs with Tehran for a second day.

If Iran's actions sparked a military escalation, "then you have all kinds of opportunity for problems that can be quite dangerous," Clinton told students at a women's college in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Her appearance at the Dar al-Hekma college was highly unusual in a conservative Muslim nation.

"Everyone who I speak with in the Gulf, including the leaders here and leaders elsewhere in the region, are expressing deep concern about Iran's intentions," Clinton said.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki criticized Clinton's tour through the Mideast, saying it was wrought with "contradictions and incorrect actions." He insisted the country's nuclear program is for peaceful purposes and urged China and Russia to resist U.S. efforts to persuade them to back further U.N. sanctions against Iran.

But in a joint statement, made public Tuesday, Russia, the U.S. and France urged Iran to stop enriching uranium to higher levels and suggested the project reinforces suspicions that Tehran is seeking to make nuclear weapons.

In a confidential letter to the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the three world powers questioned Tehran's assertion that it had started the higher-enrichment project to provide fuel to a research reactor providing medical isotopes for cancer patients.

The one-page letter dated Feb. 12 was significant in reflecting unified Russian and Western opposition to Iran's actions. Russia has previously resisted Western attempts to penalize Tehran for defying U.N. Security Council demands that it freeze its enrichment program, which can produce both nuclear fuel and the fissile core of warheads.

"If Iran goes ahead with this escalation, it would raise fresh concerns about Iran's nuclear intentions, in light of the fact that Iran cannot produced the needed nuclear fuel in time" to refuel the research reactor, according to the letter to IAEA chief Yukiya Amano.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at a news conference Tuesday in Tehran. i i

hide captionIranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at a news conference Tuesday in Tehran.

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at a news conference Tuesday in Tehran.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at a news conference Tuesday in Tehran.

Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Iran's decision to enrich to the 20-percent level is "wholly unjustified, contrary to U.N. Security Council resolutions and represent(s) a further step toward a capability to produce highly enriched uranium," the letter stated.

The 20-percent mark represents the threshold between low-enriched and high-enriched uranium.

Although warhead-grade material must be enriched to a level of 90 percent or more, just getting its present stockpile to the 20 percent mark would be a major step for Iran's nuclear program.

While enriching to 20 percent would take about one year, using up to 2,000 centrifuges at Tehran's underground Natanz facility, any next step - moving from 20 to 90 percent - would take only half a year and between 500-1,000 centrifuges.

Iran is under three sets of U.N. Security Council sanctions for refusing to stop its program. Its determination to expand such activities had been criticized worldwide even before an announcement earlier this month that Tehran planned to enrich to a higher level.

In Tehran, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced Tuesday that his country is moving to expand uranium enrichment by putting more advanced machinery into its main plant, despite growing international pressure to halt the nuclear program.

Ahmadinejad said Iran has new centrifuges that are five times more efficient than the model now in use at its Natanz enrichment plant, though they are not yet operational. He reiterated that the country's nuclear program has peaceful goals.

Ahmadinejad also dismissed Clinton's remarks, saying, "We don't take her comments seriously."

On Monday, Clinton said Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps was supplanting Iran's government, moving it in the direction of military dictatorship.

Mottaki fired back at a Tehran news conference Tuesday. "Those who have been the very symbol of military dictatorship over the past decades, since the Vietnam War until now, see everyone else in the same way," he said.

NPR's Mike Shuster contributed to this report, which includes information from The Associated Press

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