The US on Wednesday outlined how it would go about containing a nuclear-armed Iran by offering to arm and help defend US allies in the region.
In comments that hinted at growing resignation that Iran will develop nuclear weapons, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offered to extend a “defense umbrella” to allies that would neutralize any advantage Iran might seek by building a nuclear warhead. However, her comments, made in Thailand where she was attending a security conference, drew a quick rebuke from Israel, where a senior minister said it sounded like the US “had come to terms with a nuclear Iran.”
Clinton later insisted the US had not given up preventing Iran from developing a warhead and that she was not launching a new policy. However, it marked the first time a senior US official has publicly contemplated the option of containment if Iran were to succeed in building a nuclear weapon.
Such an option had been a taboo subject among US government officials and their British counterparts, who have insisted Iran would be stopped from constructing a warhead.
Iran says its nuclear program is not for military purposes and refuses to comply with UN Security Council resolutions calling on Tehran to suspend the enrichment of uranium. The impasse has grown into a crisis as the enrichment program has expanded over the past few years.
“We will still hold the door open [for negotiations], but we also have made it clear that we will take actions, as I have said time and time again, action working to upgrade the defenses of our partners in the region,” Clinton told Thai TV.
“We want Iran to calculate what I think is a fair assessment: that if the United States extends a defense umbrella over the region, if we do even more to develop the military capacity of those [allies] in the Gulf, it is 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.
Sir Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Tehran, said: “She’s implying that if Iran became a nuclear weapon state, then the US would develop their existing defense commitments and that the US would contemplate nuclear deterrence to protect Persian Gulf states.”
Clinton’s remarks appeared to be aimed at influencing the decisions being made in Tehran. She was also seeking to fend off an arms race in the Middle East, where the US’ Arab allies are nervous about a nuclear Iran and considering their own nuclear options.
However, her comments angered the US’ closest ally in the region, Israel, and drew an immediate riposte from Israeli Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy Dan Meridor.
“I was not thrilled to hear the American statement ... that they will protect their allies with a nuclear umbrella, as if they have already come to terms with a nuclear Iran. I think that’s a mistake,” he told Army Radio.
The US position appears to reflect deepening US pessimism on Iran following last month’s presidential elections and the subsequent crisis, which has served to entrench hardliners in Tehran.