By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2010; A06
RAWDAT KHURAYIM, SAUDI ARABIA -- Iran is increasingly acquiring the attributes of a "military dictatorship," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton asserted repeatedly Monday, pointing to how the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has grabbed ever-larger chunks of the country's economic, military and political life.
Clinton's statements, made first in Qatar, then to reporters traveling with her and again after meeting with Saudi King Abdullah at his desert winter retreat here, were clearly a calculated effort to stir the waters in the administration's stalled effort to win support for new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear ambitions.
Clinton appeared to be trying both to sound the alarm within Iran about the Guard's increased influence -- perhaps hoping to drive a wedge between the Guard and the rest of the political elite -- and to sow doubts about the nature of Iran in nations that are wary of additional sanctions, such as China and Brazil.
Iran insists that it has no intention of acquiring nuclear weapons, but in recent months -- as political turmoil in the Islamic republic has mounted -- the leadership has shunned offers of engagement by the United States and refused to discuss its nuclear program with major powers.
U.S. officials have said they plan to target the sanctions at the Guard, which is heavily involved in Tehran's nuclear and missile programs, because such tactics would damage the nation's power structure while in theory not affecting many ordinary Iranians. Clinton suggested that the sanctions being contemplated are also designed to thwart the growth of the Guard's role in Iran's internal political dynamics.
"That is how we see it," Clinton told students on the Doha, Qatar, campus of Carnegie Mellon University during a televised town-hall-style meeting. "We see that the government of Iran, the Supreme leader, the president, the parliament is being supplanted and that Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship."
The Guard, which has been instrumental in the suppression of opposition protests, has received at least $6 billion worth of government contracts in two years, according to state-run media, but the total is probably much higher because many contracts are not disclosed. Working through its private-sector arm, the group operates Tehran's international airport, builds the nation's highways and constructs communications systems. It also manages Iran's weapons-manufacturing business, including its controversial missile program.
Although the Obama administration has repeatedly said it does not seek to meddle in Iranian politics, Clinton suggested that Iran's elected leaders -- long at odds with the United States -- needed to take action. She said the current political climate is "a far cry from the Islamic republic that had elections and different points of view within the leadership circle."
At a news conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, she said she hoped "that this is not a permanent change but that the religious and political leaders of Iran act to take back the authority which they should be exercising on behalf of the people."
Similarly, she told reporters that "the civilian leadership is either preoccupied with its internal political situation or is ceding ground to the Revolutionary Guard" as it tries to contend with opposition protests. She said that whether the country changes course "depends on whether the clerical and political leadership begin to reassert themselves."
Clinton spent 5 1/2 hours at Abdullah's desert compound, about 60 miles northeast of the capital, Riyadh. After an opulent lunch, they spoke for nearly four hours on a range of issues, including Afghanistan, Yemen and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Iran dominated the discussion.
A key roadblock to robust sanctions is China, which has deep economic and energy ties to Iran. The Obama administration has pressed Saudi Arabia, China's top oil supplier, to put pressure on Beijing. Iran is China's No. 3 supplier of oil.
After the talks, Saud appeared lukewarm about the effectiveness of sanctions. "They may work" in the long term, but the Saudis are anxious in the short term because they "are closer to threat," he said.
But Saud also signaled impatience with China's reluctance to embrace tough action against Tehran.
Saud said he was sure that China took its role as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council "very seriously" and that "they need no suggestion from Saudi Arabia to do what they ought to do."
In Doha, Clinton said that the administration "is still open to engagement" with Iran but "would not stand idly by" if it seeks to develop a nuclear weapon. In an echo of her controversial comments last year and during the 2008 presidential campaign that the United States should extend a defense umbrella to Persian Gulf allies, she asserted: "We will always defend ourselves, and we will always defend our friends and allies. And we will certainly defend countries here in the Gulf who face the greatest immediate nearby threat from Iran."