By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 4, 2008
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has ratcheted up her rhetoric against Iran, pledging recently to extend U.S. nuclear protection to friendly Arab nations against Iran's nuclear ambitions and asserting that if Tehran considers attacking Israel, "we would be able to totally obliterate them."
The Iranian government lashed out last week in response, with an Iranian diplomat at the United Nations condemning Clinton's statement as "provocative, unwarranted and irresponsible." In a letter to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Iran's deputy U.N. ambassador, Mehdi Danesh-Yazdi, also referred to Clinton's threat as a "flagrant violation" of the U.N. Charter. Clinton's campaign dismissed the letter.
The exchange underscores Clinton's apparent effort to distinguish herself from her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), by offering a more hawkish approach to world affairs.
Few foreign policy issues have divided the candidates more than how to deal with Iran. Obama has offered to hold direct talks to halt Iran's nuclear program. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee, has cast doubt on the value of such negotiations, and Clinton falls somewhere between the two.
Clinton first advanced the idea of a new defensive alliance with Arab states last month during an ABC News debate with Obama in the days before the Pennsylvania primary, after the candidates were asked if they would extend the U.S. "security umbrella" to Israel in the event that Iran obtains nuclear weapons.
Both responded affirmatively, but Clinton went further. She said she would "provide a deterrent backup" that would extend U.S. nuclear protection beyond Europe and Japan to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Arab countries, guaranteeing "massive retaliation" if Iran targeted Israel or Arab allies. The Arab countries -- but not Israel -- would have to promise not to obtain nuclear weapons, which Clinton said would prevent a nuclear arms race in the region.
Some analysts have praised her proposal as a bold initiative, but it has also attracted concerns about its feasibility and whether it would tie the hands of a future president. Martin S. Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, one of the originators of the idea and a Clinton supporter, said that Arab states would probably need to promise to recognize Israel for such a treaty to win congressional approval.
"This is a very big and important proposal, maybe one of the most important any candidate has made all year," said Bruce Reidel, a former CIA official who says he is neutral on the presidential race. "This is committing the United States to the defense of these countries. It has flaws, but it is a creative way to deal with" a nuclear-armed Iran.
The Bush administration has struggled to thwart Iran's nuclear program, pushing for U.N. sanctions and offering to join other major powers at the negotiating table if Tehran suspends its nuclear activities. But thus far Iran has shrugged off the pressure.
Some experts are wary of Clinton's proposal. Doug Bandow, a Reagan administration official and a fellow with the American Conservative Defense Alliance, noted that Israel already has a nuclear deterrent: an estimated 200 weapons of its own.
Clinton's idea, he said, would elevate Iran, a regional power without global reach, to the status of the Soviet Union. "It's clearly a political statement in terms of winning votes, and utterly irresponsible," said Bandow, who favors Obama on foreign policy.
As tension grew with the Soviet Union more than half a century ago, the United States pledged to respond to a nuclear attack on NATO allies, Japan or South Korea with a nuclear counterstrike. During the failed peace talks in the final months of the Clinton administration, Israel sought and received a commitment to be covered by the U.S. nuclear deterrent if it achieved a peace deal with the Palestinians. But neither the Bush administration nor any presidential candidate had suggested widening it to Arab countries technically at war with Israel.
The Obama campaign suggests that Clinton threw out the idea without much consideration of its impact, and in effect is giving up on preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
"It is a controversial idea that raises many serious unanswered questions, and it was unveiled in a most haphazard and almost reckless way," said Susan E. Rice, an Obama adviser. "It presupposes an outcome that responsible people want to prevent."
Lee Feinstein, Clinton's national security director, said the candidate is signaling to Tehran that seeking nuclear weapons is useless. "She has made clear to Iran that if your policy aim is to be able to intimidate your neighbors, that is not going to succeed," he said.
Feinstein characterized Clinton's concept as "building on U.S. policy in light of the dangers we are facing" in the Persian Gulf. Clinton would seek to enhance relations with "U.S. friends in the region," but he said it is premature to say what form stronger ties might take. "The issue is basically one of reassurance," he said.
The Clinton campaign declined to explain why she chose to unveil the idea in a debate and not in a foreign policy speech. "I can't get into these internal discussions," Feinstein said.
The senator went on to revisit the idea in an interview with Keith Olbermann of MSNBC, saying this "new security umbrella" would "help the other countries that might be intimidated and bullied into submission by Iran."
Indyk, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, acknowledged that such an agreement with Israel would easily win approval, but "in the case of the Arabs it would be quite controversial." He said the debate would be: "Do we want to be at nuclear war with Iran on behalf of Saudi Arabia, or do we want a region with five nuclear powers?"
Indyk said that, based on his recent talks with Arab leaders, many "are perplexed as to why discussions of such security guarantees have not yet been undertaken."
A senior Arab diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing a U.S. campaign proposal, said leaders in the region are more interested in seeing a serious effort by the United States to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and have little fear that Iran would target an Arab country.
Jon B. Alterman, a Middle East specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, called Clinton's proposal "a lose-lose-lose proposition."
Alterman, who is not affiliated with any candidate, said: "I don't think it changes Iranian thinking. I don't think it changes Arab thinking. And it obligates the United States and puts U.S. decision making in a corner without any appreciable benefit."