ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday that sanctions have slowed Iran's efforts to develop atomic weapons and accused the country of trying to foment new conflict in the Middle East to distract attention from its nuclear ambitions.
On the first stop of a three-nation tour of the Persian Gulf, Clinton said the Arab world in particular should act to sharpen enforcement of the sanctions and reject attempts to stoke Mideast tensions. She also said Arab states had a special role to play in helping restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks by promoting a broader Arab-Israeli settlement.
"The most recent analysis is that the sanctions have been working. They have made it much more difficult for Iran to pursue its nuclear ambitions," she told a pan-Arab television talk show. "Their program, from our best estimate, has been slowed down. So we have time, but not a lot of time."
If Iran succeeds in developing an atomic bomb, it will plunge the Mideast into a disastrous nuclear arms race, she said. "It is first and foremost in the interest of the region to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon."
Last week, Israel's newly retired spy chief was reported to have said he thinks Iran won't be able to build a nuclear bomb before 2015, pushing back Israeli intelligence estimates of when Tehran might become a nuclear power.
As recently as 2009, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Iran would be able to build a nuclear bomb by 2011. But since then the projected deadline has been extended. Earlier this month, the Israeli minister in charge of strategic affairs, Moshe Yaalon, said it would take the Iranians at least three years to develop a nuclear weapon.
On Sunday, Clinton said the timetable is less important than keeping Iran from ever developing atomic arms and urged the world to continue to ply Iran with pressure to halt its activities.
Many Arab nations share U.S. fears that Iran is using a civilian atomic energy program to hide weapons development, something Iran denies. Those concerns were amplified in leaked diplomatic cables released by the WikiLeaks web site late last year that revealed deep mistrust of Iran by Sunni Arab leaders of their increasing emboldened Shiite neighbor.
As the sanctions have taken effect, Clinton said it was clear Iran was actively trying to scuttle peace efforts by promoting tensions that some fear could lead to war between Israel and Iranian and Syrian proxies in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.
"I am aware of the drumbeats and I think that those unfortunately are being created for very cynical purposes," she told the audience. "Let's be very blunt here. I think that there is very little doubt that Iran does not want to see any kind of negotiated peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians."
"We cannot let that attention get diverted and we cannot let any outside influence cause a conflict in the Middle East that would be a disaster for everyone," Clinton said. "The responsible leadership in the region must do everything it can to prevent anyone from taking action that could launch a conflict."
As part of that effort, she said Arab nations should recommit to a Saudi-proposed comprehensive land-for-peace proposal under which the entire Arab world would normalize relations with Israel. That, she said, would help give the Israelis the security assurances they need to take the risks needed to make peace with the Palestinians.
"The Arab world needs to make it clear that the Arab peace initiative will be implemented," Clinton said.
Clinton made her comments on the program "Sweet Talk," often described as the Arabic version of "The View," hosted by three women.
During the wide-ranging interview and chat with the audience, Clinton also urged Arab women to press for equal rights and said they should begin to prepare for changes in traditional gender roles that are inevitable. She said she thought America is ready for a female president but again shot down suggestions that she might make another White House run.
"I am not going to run again," she said.
In addition, Clinton called for greater openness, tolerance and development in the region to blunt extremism, especially among Arab youth, that can breed terrorism.
She stressed that such problems are universal and, noting the recent shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, said extremism exists in the United States and must be combatted.
"Look, we have extremists in my country," Clinton said. "A wonderful, incredibly brave, young woman congressmember, Congresswoman Giffords, was just shot by an extremist in our country. We have the same kinds of problems. So rather than standing off from each other, we should work to try to prevent the extremists anywhere from being able to commit violence."