By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 15, 2010; 9:34 AM
DOHA, QATAR -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday that the United States fears Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has gained enough power to potentially supplant the Tehran government.
Speaking to Arab students at Carnegie Mellon's Doha campus Monday, Clinton made comments about the Guard's increasing role in the country's economic and political life that went further than previous administration statements.
Previously, officials said they planned to target new sanctions on the Guard, which is heavily involved in Tehran's nuclear and missile programs, because such tactics would harm the country's political elite, sparing, at least in theory, many ordinary Iranians. Clinton suggested proposed sanctions are also designed to thwart the growing role of the Guard in Iran's internal political dynamics.
Clinton strongly suggested the United States would defend Persian Gulf allies from Iranian aggression, in what appeared to be an echo of her controversial proposal for a defense umbrella for the region.
"We will always defend ourselves, and we always will defend our friends and allies, and we will certainly defend countries in the Gulf who face the greatest, immediate nearby threat from Iran," she said.
She said the Obama administration believes that the Guard is supplanting the government of Iran. "That is how we see it. 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," said Clinton, who arrived Sunday in Qatar, where she spoke at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum.
Clinton expanded on her Iran remarks before the students as she flew to Saudi Arabia on Monday afternoon. She told reporters traveling with her that she believed the current civilian leadership was too "preoccupied" by the opposition protests to recognize the creeping coup by the guard, and it was unclear if the clerical and civilian leadership could "begin to reassert itself."
Among the signs of a military dictatorship that she saw, she said the current government "is a far cry from the Islamic Republic, which had elections and different points of view within the leadership circle. "
She said in the speech that the administration "is still open to engagement" with the Islamic Republic but "would not stand idly by" if Iran seeks to develop a nuclear weapon.
The Guard 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 missile program.
The Guard also is responsible for the construction of a network of underground tunnels to conceal and protect Iran's military and nuclear programs, according to senior U.S. officials. The Treasury Department on Wednesday slapped sanctions on four construction-related companies believed to serve as fronts for the growing business interests of the Guard. The administration also is developing sanctions against the Guard for the U.N. Security Council.