Iran's president announced Tuesday that his country is installing more advanced centrifuges at its main uranium enrichment facility, even as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned of an arms race if Iran acquires a nuclear bomb.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a news conference the new centrifuges are not yet operational but are five times more efficient than an earlier model at its Natanz enrichment plant — news of major concern to the U.S. and its allies because at higher levels the enriched uranium they produce can be used in nuclear warheads.
Iran says its nuclear work is only for peaceful purposes in a medical reactor, but Clinton said Tuesday that if Iran acquires a nuclear device it could trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, which would create "dangerous" problems in the region.
Clinton, speaking to an audience of Saudi students at a women's college in Jeddah, ticked off a list of Iranian violations she said pointed toward its pursuit of nuclear arms, including the construction of a covert uranium enrichment facility in Qom.
"Everyone who I speak with in the Gulf, including the leaders here and leaders elsewhere in the region, are expressing deep concern about Iran's intentions," she said, calling Iran "the largest supporter of terrorism in the world today."
If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, she said, the hope of a nuclear-free Middle East disappears "because then other countries which feel threatened by Iran will say to themselves, 'If Iran has a nuclear weapon, I better get one, too, in order to protect my people.'
"Then you have a nuclear arms race in the region," she said.
Clinton's warnings came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for "paralyzing sanctions" against key parts of Iran's energy sector, the Interfax News Agency reported, according to Reuters.
Netanyahu has been visiting Moscow trying to shore up Russian support for Iran sanctions in the U.N. Security Council, where Russia and China hold veto power and where both have been resistant to U.S. and international overtures seeking an economic crackdown on the Islamic Republic.
Netanyahu said that new sanctions should halt Iran's oil exports and prevent the country from importing gas, Reuters reported.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev appeared unmoved but may have been nudged by Netanyahu's call into considering the possibility of sanctions.
"The position of Russia regarding sanctions remains unchanged," said a spokewoman for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. "[But] if Iran remains uncooperative, no one can exclude the use of sanctions."
Netanyahu told Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou on Monday that if Iran managed to develop nuclear weapons, the rest of the Muslim world would follow suit, as Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia would soon begin their own nuclear programs, an Israeli official told Reuters.
Clinton, who echoed on Tuesday those same concerns, was winding up a three-day Persian Gulf visit that began Sunday in Qatar and continued in the Saudi capital of Riyadh on Monday. She was returning to Washington later Tuesday.
Her visit appeared largely unsuccessful, as her attempt to corral Saudi leaders into supporting sanctions were apparently rebuffed.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told a news conference in Riyadh late Monday that the threat posed by Iran's nuclear ambitions is too pressing to be met by sanctions, which he described as a long-term solution. He said a more immediate solution is required.
Clinton was granted a brief audience with King Abdullah on Tuesday during the last hours of her trip, but a large-screen TV was blaring during her lunch with the King, which was made public to reporters. The two at times fell silent during their meeting, the New York Times reported, and it is unclear whether they discussed Iran's nuclear program.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.