RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday Iran is sliding into a military dictatorship, a new assessment suggesting a rockier road ahead for U.S.-led efforts to stop Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
As the first high-level Obama administration official to make such an accusation, Clinton was reflecting an ever-dimming outlook for persuading Iran to negotiate limits on its nuclear program, which it has insisted is intended only for peaceful purposes. The U.S. and others – including the two Gulf countries Clinton visited Sunday and Monday – believe Iran is headed for a nuclear bomb capability.
Clinton also was revealing the logic of the administration's plan to target the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps with a new round of international sanctions intended to compel Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions before it increases the likelihood of a military clash.
Clinton flew to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, where Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal seemed to express doubt about the usefulness of seeking more sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. In a joint appearance with Clinton, he said the threat posed by Iran's nuclear ambitions demands a more immediate solution. The Saudi foreign minister didn't identify a preferred short-term resolution.
"Sanctions are a long-term solution. But we see the issue in the shorter term because we are closer to the threat," he said.
U.S. officials said privately that they were unsure of al-Faisal's meaning and that they were certain Saudi Arabia was not opposed to new sanctions. They said the Saudis have some doubt that sanctions can be effective.The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in order to describe diplomatically sensitive conversations with the Saudi leadership.
Clinton was driven in King Abdullah's private bus about 65 miles northeast to Rawdat Khurayim, a secluded royal hunting retreat where the vacationing king hosted her for lunch – and where a large-screen TV was on. Afterward they met privately in his elaborately appointed tent, which includes five crystal chandeliers in the reception room. Clinton also met with al-Faisal in Riyadh and later was flying to Jeddah on the Red Sea coast.
Earlier in the day, in Doha, Qatar, Clinton spoke bluntly about Iranian behavior and what she called the Obama administration's view of Iran as increasingly dominated by the Revolutionary Guard Corps. Her statements may have been designed to deepen what U.S. analysts see as growing fissures between Iran's regular armed forces and the Revolutionary Guards, whose authority has widened since the disputed presidential election in June.
Last week the U.S. Treasury Department announced that it was freezing the assets in U.S. jurisdictions of a Revolutionary Guard general and four subsidiaries of a previously penalized construction company he runs because of their alleged involvement in producing and spreading weapons of mass destruction.
The Revolutionary Guard has long been a pillar of Iran's regime as a force separate from the ordinary armed forces. The Guard now has a hand in every critical area, including missile development, oil resources, dam building, road construction, telecommunications and nuclear technology.
It also has absorbed the paramilitary Basij as a full-fledged part of its command structure – giving the militia greater funding and a stronger presence in Iran's internal politics.
"The evidence we've seen of this increasing decision-making (by the Revolutionary Guard) cuts across all areas of Iranian security policy, and certainly nuclear policy is at the core of it," Clinton told reporters flying with her from Doha to Saudi Arabia.
Asked if the U.S. was planning a military attack on Iran, Clinton said "no."
The United States is focused on gaining international support for sanctions "that will be particularly aimed at those enterprises controlled by the Revolutionary Guard, which we believe is in effect supplanting the government of Iran," she said.
Meanwhile, a semiofficial news agency quoted the head of Iran's nuclear program as saying the country received a new proposal last week from the United States, Russia and France, three of the countries trying to rein in Tehran's uranium enrichment program.
Iran said that it was studying the joint proposal purportedly made after the country announced last week it had begun enriching uranium to a higher level than previously acknowledged. The ILNA news agency quoted Ali Akbar Salehi as saying various countries have also offered Iran proposals on a nuclear fuel swap, adding that Iran is reviewing all the proposals. He did not provide any more details.
Private U.S. experts on the Iranian regime said they agreed with Clinton's assessment of Iran's drift toward military dominance.
"When you rely on the power of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to remain in power it is only a matter of time before the regime becomes a paramilitary dictatorship – and it is about time we realize this," Iranian-born Fariborz Ghadar, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an e-mail to the AP. He said the current regime is "beholden to the Revolutionary Guard for its survival."
Ray Takeyh, a former administration adviser on Iran who now follows Iranian developments from the private Council on Foreign Relations, said by e-mail, "The Revolutionary Guards are increasingly represented in all aspects of governance."
Clinton told reporters it appears the Revolutionary Guard is in charge of Iran's controversial nuclear program and the country changing course "depends on whether the clerical and political leadership begin to reassert themselves."
She added: "I'm not predicting what will happen but I think the trend with this greater and greater military lock on leadership decisions should be disturbing to Iranians as well as those of us on the outside."
Clinton said Iran in its current state is "a far cry from the Islamic Republic that had elections and different points of view within the leadership circle. That is part of the reason that we are so concerned with what we are seeing going on there."
In her Doha appearance, Clinton also said she foresees a possible breakthrough soon in stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
"I'm hopeful that this year will see the commencement of serious negotiations that will cover every issue that is outstanding," she said, adding that "everyone is anticipating" progress after more than a year of impasse between the negotiating parties.
The peace talks broke down in late 2008 with Israel's incursion into Gaza, which had launched rocket attacks on Israeli targets.
Clinton spoke in an interview with the Al-Jazeera TV network before a live audience of mostly Arab students at the Carnegie Mellon campus.