- Associated Press - Monday, January 10, 2011

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates | Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday that sanctions have slowed Iran’s efforts to develop atomic weapons and accused the country of trying to foment new conflict in the Middle East to distract attention from its nuclear ambitions.

On the first stop of a three-nation tour of the Persian Gulf, Mrs. Clinton said the Arab world in particular should act to sharpen enforcement of the sanctions and reject attempts to stoke Mideast tensions. She also said Arab states had a special role to play in helping restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks by promoting a broader Arab-Israeli settlement.

“The most recent analysis is that the sanctions have been working. They have made it much more difficult for Iran to pursue its nuclear ambitions,” she told a pan-Arab television talk show. “Their program, from our best estimate, has been slowed down. So we have time, but not a lot of time.”

If Iran succeeds in developing an atomic bomb, it will plunge the Mideast into a disastrous nuclear arms race, she said. “It is first and foremost in the interest of the region to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”

Last week, Israel’s newly retired spy chief was reported to have said he thinks Iran won’t be able to build a nuclear bomb before 2015, pushing back Israeli intelligence estimates of when Tehran might become a nuclear power.

As recently as 2009, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Iran would be able to build a nuclear bomb by 2011. But since then, the projected deadline has been extended. Earlier this month, the Israeli minister in charge of strategic affairs, Moshe Yaalon, said it would take the Iranians at least three years to develop a nuclear weapon.

On Sunday, Mrs. Clinton said the timetable is less important than keeping Iran from ever developing atomic arms and urged the world to continue to ply Iran with pressure to halt its activities.

Many Arab nations share U.S. fears that Iran is using a civilian atomic energy program to hide weapons development, something Iran denies.

Those concerns were amplified in leaked diplomatic cables released by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks late last year that revealed deep mistrust of Iran by Sunni Arab leaders of their increasing emboldened Shiite neighbor.

As the sanctions have taken effect, Mrs. Clinton said it is clear Iran was actively trying to scuttle peace efforts by promoting tensions that some fear could lead to war between Israel and Iranian and Syrian proxies in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

Mrs. Clinton made her comments on the program “Sweet Talk,” often described as the Arabic version of “The View,” hosted by three women.

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