By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 16, 2010; 10:01 AM
JIDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met Tuesday with female college students in Jiddah, winning a more cordial reception than did the last senior U.S. official to visit the campus.
Clinton's addressed what she called a growing threat that Iran could obtain a nuclear weapon and trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. She listed a number of recent actions by Tehran that she said violated the nation's obligation not to pursue nuclear weapons.
"You have to ask yourself, 'Why are they doing this?' " Clinton said.
Iran, meanwhile, rejected Clinton's accusation on Monday that the country was on the verge of becoming a military dictatorship.
"Those who have been the very symbol of military dictatorship over the past decades, since the Vietnam War until now, see everyone else in the same way," Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said at a news conference with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, the Associated Press reported.
Mottaki criticized Clinton's Mideast tour, which took her to Saudi Arabia on Monday, saying it was "overflowing with contradictions and incorrect actions."
Clinton's town hall meeting with students at the college, Dar Al-Hekma, was dominated by a wonky discussion of public policy issues, including the health-care debate in the United States.
There was a brief foray into politics as well, when a student asked whether the top U.S. diplomat would move to either Canada or Russia if former Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin (R) was ever elected president.
"I will not be emigrating," Clinton assured her audience. She told them that it is "part of the American political environment that people are always speculating on who will run for president . . . I've gone through that experience personally, so I'm very well acquainted with it."
Clinton steered clear of the questions about the role of women in Saudi society that often dominate U.S. perceptions of the conservative Muslim nation. Instead, she heaped praise on Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah for promoting women's education in his country.
She said she was aware of anger among Saudi women about how they are portrayed in the United States media, but noted that the public image of American women is pretty "uni-dimensional" as well.
More than four years ago, then-Undersecretary of State Karen P. Hughes caused a stir when she visited the same Saudi college and questioned the Saudi ban of women driving in the kingdom.
"We, in America, take our freedoms very seriously," Hughes said then, responding to fierce criticism by the students of how Saudi women are perceived in the West. "I believe women should be free and equal participants in society. I feel that as an American woman that my ability to drive is an important part of my freedom."
Hughes, who headed the Bush administration's efforts to improve its image in the world, said she viewed the driving ban as "a symbol" that made Saudi Arabia seem alien and strange to Americans. But she came under fire for appearing to impose her own perspective on the Saudis.
Clinton, perhaps the world's most prominent advocate for women's rights, had signaled in advance that she would take a less confrontational approach when she holds a town hall meeting with students.
"I am very anxious to hear directly from women themselves," she said. "I don't want to second-guess or in any way substitute my observation for their experience, because the experts in women in the kingdom are the women themselves."
When speaking to the students, she noted that one of her top aides, deputy chief of staff Yuma Abedin, is the daughter of the school's vice dean.
Clinton -- who was feted Monday at a royal lunch at King Abdullah's winter retreat -- came to the kingdom to discuss a range of issues, including winning assistance on tougher sanctions against Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Asked Monday how she would assess the status of women in Saudi Arabia, Clinton essentially ducked the question by focusing on recent changes in the country.
Abdullah, who became king in 2005, has gradually loosened some of the rules imposed by the country's powerful religious authorities. Women are still expected to wear the abaya, the traditional head-to-toe black garment, but increasingly some do not cover their heads.
Newspapers have also begun to report on formerly taboo subjects such as incest and rape.
"I am very excited by many of the positive developments that I have read about and been told about over the last several years under his majesty's leadership," Clinton said.
Wealthy Saudi women generally have drivers, and often other personal servants, and many therefore say they don't need to know how to drive. But some also secretly learn how to drive in the desert and then do so when they travel to Europe or the United States.