Hillary Clinton said yesterday that the US was ready to guarantee the safety of its Gulf allies against Iran and would increase pressure on North Korea, as she set out Washington's strategy to tackle nuclear proliferation from Tehran and Pyongyang.
Speaking on a visit to Thailand, the US secretary of state sought to counter recent setbacks to the Obama administration's plans for negotiations with Iran by insisting that the US could "extend a defence umbrella over the [Gulf] region" if Tehran developed a nuclear weapon.
In the face of recent missile and nuclear tests by North Korea and worries about its military and possibly nuclear links with Burma, she also argued that Pyongyang would be subjected to "unrelenting" sanctions unless it irreversibly ended its nuclear weapons programme.
Mrs Clinton held out the prospects of talks with both countries while giving a hard edge to the Obama administration policy of engagement.
"We want Iran to calculate what I think is a fair assessment: that if the US extends a defence umbrella over the region, if we do even more to support the military capacity of those in the Gulf, it is unlikely Iran will be any stronger or safer," she said.
"They won't be able to intimidate and dominate as they apparently believe they can once they have a nuclear weapon."
Her comments follow suggestions from several US experts that Washington needs a fallback policy of containing Iran, including extending a nuclear umbrella over Israel and the Gulf Arab states, to provide a middle way between engagement and a military strike.
But her remarks were immediately attacked by Israel. Dan Meridor, intelligence service minister, said Mrs Clinton's remarks made it seem as if the US was "already resigned" to a nuclear-armed Iran. "This is a mistake," he said, according to Reuters. "We cannot act now by assuming that Iran will be able to arm itself with a nuclear weapon, but to prevent such a possibility."
Mrs Clinton later insisted that she had not set out a new policy, emphasising that the US still regarded Iranian nuclear weapons as "unacceptable". Barack Obama, president, continues to back plans for negotiations with Tehran, despite the crackdown after last month's disputed Iranian election. Similarly, on North Korea, Gary Samore, Mr Obama's top arms control adviser, said last week that Pyongyang was "probably looking for a way to get back to the bargaining table", after the recent tests.
But US expectations are low of progress on either front. Mr Samore "could not imagine significant pro-gress" in the talks with Iran by September, when the world's big powers are due to assess the effectiveness of the prospective negotiations. US officials also acknowledge that their challenge on North Korea is not to resume talks, but to convince Pyongyang irreversibly to end its nuclear weapons programme.
Expanding on remarks she made the previous day about "growing concerns about military co-operation between North Korea and Burma", Mrs Clinton said: "We worry about the transfer of nuclear technology. I'm not saying it is happening, but we want to be prepared to stand against it."
North Korean technicians are suspected of helping the Burmese regime build tunnels near Nyapidaw, its remote new capital, and this month the US navy shadowed a North Korean ship it suspected was carrying arms for Burma. The ship turned around before reaching Burma, but the Obama administration has made clear its biggest concern is the risk of proliferation.
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