Clinton calls Iran 'largest supporter of terrorism'

The US secretary of state says the "evidence doesn't support" Iran's claim its nuclear programme is peaceful.

JEDDAH // Any country that tries to impose new sanctions on Tehran will regret its action, Iran's leader said yesterday. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made his comments as Russia joined an international chorus warning Iran against pursuing uranium enrichment and the US secretary of state said the "evidence doesn't support" Iran's claim its nuclear programme is peaceful.

Hillary Clinton was in Jeddah yesterday, pressing for Saudi support to bring China onside in the US fight to keep nuclear weapons out of Iran. Mr Ahmadinejad was reacting to Mrs Clinton's speech in Doha at the US-Islamic World Forum when he said: "Iran will retaliate - of course, if somebody acts against Iran our response will definitely be firm enough - [to] make them regretful." He did not elaborate.

"Sanctions will not harm Iran," he said. A joint letter from the United States, Russia and France expressed concern about Tehran's nuclear work and said its decision to escalate uranium enrichment, rather than implement a nuclear fuel swap, was unjustified. The letter to the UN nuclear monitor in Vienna was a response to Iran's launch last week of higher-grade enrichment, raising suspicions of a quest for atom bomb capability, on grounds that big powers' terms for the deal were inadequate and unfair.

This "is wholly unjustified. - If Iran goes forward with this escalation, it would raise new concerns about Iran's nuclear intentions," said the letter, dated February 12. It said the UN proposal for Iran to swap enriched uranium for medical-reactor fuel, which would minimise the risk of Tehran's use of the material for nuclear bombs, contained legal assurances it would be fulfilled, contrary to Iran's assertions.

Diplomats said the letter was made public to refute Iranian statements this week that the powers had offered a new proposal to address Tehran's complaints about the plan, brokered by the International Atomic Energy Agency in October. Mr Ahmadinejad said talks were still under way on the proposed fuel exchange and the issue was not yet closed. He did not give details, but the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, was visiting Tehran yesterday to try to salvage the UN-brokered uranium exchange deal amid growing calls for new sanctions against Iran.

Mrs Clinton made her defence of the US push for sanctions against Iran at a Saudi women's college in Jeddah, where she also was the first US secretary of state to visit the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). The OIC visit and the trip to Qatar were designed to drum up support among the United States' Arab allies against Iran. "Iran is the largest supporter of terrorism in the world today," Mrs Clinton told students at Dar el-Hekma women's college.

Mrs Clinton evaded pointing to Israel when replying to a question by one of the students why the United States is against Iran while Israel is allowed to have nuclear weapons. She did, however, tell the students that concerns about Iran's intentions are justified because it has given no evidence that its nuclear programme is peaceful. The concerns are further justified because of the threats Iran has made to other countries and the funding it provides to groups that have carried out terrorist attacks in other countries, including in Saudi Arabia, she said.

She said agreements have been reached over decades to avert the threat of nuclear war, like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Under the agreement, which Iran has signed, declared nuclear powers try to limit, reduce and safeguard nuclear weapons while those that do not have them, like Iran, agree not to pursue them, Mrs Clinton said. "We are going to try to go to the United Nations and get additional sanctions that will perhaps convince the Iranians themselves to change direction," she said.

Before the speech at Dar el-Hekma, Mrs Clinton visited the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the second-largest intergovernmental group after the United Nations, where she introduced the newly appointed US special envoy to the OIC, Rashad Hussein, to the organisation's secretary general, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu. The appointment of Mr Hussein and the visit of Mrs Clinton are signs that US President Barack Obama is attempting to build more bridges with the Islamic world, at least one analyst said.

Yet, "I think the appointment of Mr Hussein to the OIC is more important than Clinton's visit to the organisation as the special envoy will be the link between the largest Islamic international body and the American government", said Shafi al Damer, a professor of political science at the King Fahad University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran. Regarding Iran, Mr al Damer said: "Obama pursued an open dialogue with Iran at the beginning, but after Iran announced it seeks to enrich uranium to 20 per cent purity, admitted it built a secret uranium plant near Qom and balked at international offers to hand over low-grade uranium to be upgraded abroad, the US policy is changing and Clinton is here to confirm that.

"Saudi Arabia made it clear that it is against the nuclear race in the region as the kingdom doesn't want to see any nuclear war in the region and Prince Saud made this clear in his statements on Monday after meeting with Clinton. "Saudi is not supporting the possession of nuclear weapon by any state in the region whether it's Israel or a Muslim country like Iran." The Obama administration is seeking a world free of nuclear weapons, which includes a Middle East free of nuclear weapons, "including everyone", Mrs Clinton said yesterday at the college in Jeddah.

"If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, that hope disappears," she continued, adding that it would provoke an arms race among countries in the region. * With additional reporting by Reuters