The Cable

Clinton’s nuclear talking points

Last week in Thailand, Hillary Clinton turned a few heads when she said the United States would extend a "defense umbrella" to its allies in the Middle East, including Gulf states that have become increasingly nervous about Iran’s nuclear intentions. "[I]f the United States extends a defense umbrella over the region," the U.S. secretary of ...

Last week in Thailand, Hillary Clinton turned a few heads when she said the United States would extend a "defense umbrella" to its allies in the Middle East, including Gulf states that have become increasingly nervous about Iran’s nuclear intentions.

"[I]f the United States extends a defense umbrella over the region," the U.S. secretary of state said, "if we do even more to support the military capacity of those in the Gulf, it’s unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer, because they won’t be able to intimidate and dominate, as they apparently believe they can, once they have a nuclear weapon."

In retrospect, it’s hard to know if she was speaking her brief too candidly, just got out ahead of herself, or if her comments reflected the counsel of her team of nonproliferation advisors. Or, as one official says, she did none of the above, and there’s no there there.

Whatever the case, the remarks caused international headlines, including in Israel, where they were widely interpreted to mean the United States had, if not accepted that Iran would become a nuclear weapons state, at least made contingency plans for that possibility.

On Sunday, in her first appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press since becoming Obama’s top diplomat, Clinton was asked about her defense umbrella remarks.

"What we want to do is to send a message to whoever is making these decisions [in Iran] that if you’re pursuing nuclear weapons for the purpose of intimidating, of projecting your power, we’re not going to let that happen," Clinton explained. 

Later in the interview, Clinton said something else that, though unremarkable to many observers, pricked up the ears of some international nonproliferation experts and one hawk-eyed journalist, World Politics Review‘s Judah Grunstein. Addressing Iran, Clinton said, "You have a right to pursue the peaceful use of civil nuclear power. You do not have a right to obtain a nuclear weapon. You do not have the right to have the full enrichment and reprocessing cycle under your control."

Whether Iran, as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has a right to enrich depends on whom you ask. (Iran insists it does under the NPT, as do many international nonproliferation experts. Others believe the Islamic Republic has essentially forfeited that right for being found by the U.N. Security Council to have violated its obligations under the same NPT treaty.) But the explicit assertion that Iran does not have the right to enrich has not been previously publicly expressed by the Obama administration, some nonproliferation experts asserted. 

"That statement [by Clinton on Meet the Press] also perked up my ears," one U.S. government expert said on condition of anonymity. 

"The NPT does give members states the right to enrich uranium, as long as they comply with their other obligations," he continued.  "The Bush administration position, which was supported by the U.N. Security Council,  was that Iran forfeited this right by concealing many of its nuclear activities for 18 years, but Iran asserts that the right is still inherent there.  So, in essence, she was restating the Bush position that Iran no longer has the right to enrich.  But it is because Iran was deemed to have forfeited the right through its behavior."

"I think she was being telegraphic," said the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s George Perkovich, who thought her remarks merited attention.

"The argument on which the Security Council resolutions rest is that Iran violated its safeguard obligations … and its violations suspended its rights," he continued. "But that battle was lost politically in the broader international community. Most people say Iran has a right to enrich, and they don’t acknowledge the conditionality of that right."

Such disputes over language may seem arcane, but they can have international consequences, Perkovich said.

An administration official dismissed such concerns. "Nobody at State has raised concerns over this," the official e-mailed in response to a query on Clinton’s remarks on Meet the Press. "Nobody in any other part of the USG has communicated to State or anyone that this is an issue. She stated existing USG policy, verbatim. So your folks are just plain wrong."

"Iran says the NPT gives it the unconditional right to enrichment for peaceful purposes," said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a U.S.-based foundation that promotes the elimination of nuclear weapons. "But no, that’s not true. There are conditions on conforming to other aspects of the treaty. Clinton was reasserting the U.S. position held under the Bush and Obama administration that Iran’s access to nuclear technology is conditioned on its other obligations."

Regarding Clinton’s "defense umbrella" comment, Perkovich thinks it also would have been better left unsaid. "’Defense umbrella’ invokes nuclear weapons. That’s trying to convince a country they don’t need nuclear weapons by implicitly saying we’ll nuke them. … That kind of thing helps the Iranians who like it when Americans say aggressive things. They are very good at a shouting match. What they really respect, however, is the secret stuff."

"We should be working with Arabs on how to strengthen their defenses and intelligence," Perkovich continued, "and don’t say a word about it. … That will get to the Iranians."

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