- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 23, 2009

PHUKET, Thailand | Reprising a position from her presidential campaign, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday the United States could extend a “defense umbrella” over its allies in the Persian Gulf if Iran does not abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

It appeared that Mrs. Clinton was not announcing a new U.S. policy and was speaking off the cuff. The White House and Pentagon had no immediate reaction to her comment, but Israel criticized it and suggested that it meant that the U.S. had accepted the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Mrs. Clinton, who during her unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination said the U.S. should pledge to defend the Persian Gulf states against a nuclear attack, explained that a “defense umbrella” was part of an “upgrade” in military capabilities and did not mean the Obama administration is resigned to an Iranian nuclear weapon. She said she was simply pointing out to Tehran that having a weapon would not make Iran safer.

“We want Iran to calculate what I think is a fair assessment - that 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,” she said.

Mrs. Clinton made her comments during the taping of a popular TV show in Bangkok. Later, at a news conference in the Thai resort city of Phuket, she said she did not mean to suggest a new policy and reiterated that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be unacceptable.

“The focus that Iran must have is that it faces the prospect, if it pursues nuclear weapons, of sparking an arms race in the region,” she said. “That should affect the calculation of what Iran intends to do and what it believes is in its national security interest, because it may render Iran less secure, not more secure.”

The secretary is here to participate in the annual gathering of foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

As a presidential candidate during last year’s Democratic primaries, she mentioned the idea of a defense umbrella several times, but her rival at the time, Barack Obama, did not.

It was not clear Wednesday whether the idea has been discussed at the White House or the Pentagon since Mr. Obama took office in January.

In spite of Mrs. Clinton’s insistence that her comments were not meant as an acceptance of a nuclear Iran, Israeli officials reacted quickly.

“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,” Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor told Israel’s Army Radio.

“I think that’s a mistake,” he said. “I think it would be more appropriate not to accept the premise that Iran has turned nuclear but to try to prevent this.”

Israel is thought to have dozens of its own nuclear warheads but maintains ambiguity about the program.

The West accuses Iran of trying to build a nuclear weapon under the cover of a civilian program, but Tehran says its uranium enrichment and other activities are only for peaceful purposes.

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