Thailand - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sketched out on Wednesday how the United States might cope with a nuclear Iran -- by arming its allies in the Gulf and extending a defence umbrella over the region.
Her comments drew an immediate rebuke from a senior Israeli official, who said the United States should focus on preventing Iran from going nuclear rather than talking as if this may be a fait accompli.
Clinton later said that she was not suggesting a new U.S. policy and reiterated that Iran possessing nuclear weapons would be unacceptable to the United States.
Speaking in Bangkok, Clinton said crossing the nuclear threshold would not make Iran, which Washington believes is pursuing nuclear arms, safer. Iran says its nuclear programme is to generate electricity so it can export more oil and gas.
We will still hold the door open (for talks with Iran) but we also have made it clear that we'll take actions, as I've said time and time again, crippling action, working to upgrade the defence of our partners in the region, she said in a programme taped for Thai television.
We want Iran to calculate what I think is a fair assessment ... that if the U.S. extends a defence umbrella over the region, 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.
A senior U.S. official said Clinton's comments should be seen as a public argument that the United States is making to dissuade Iran from pursuing nuclear arms rather than a sign that the United States is becoming resigned to the prospect.
Asked later at a news conference in the Thai resort of Phuket, where she is to attend Asia's biggest annual security meeting, to flesh out what she meant by a defence umbrella, Clinton said:
I was simply pointing out that Iran needs to understand that its pursuit of nuclear weapons will not advance its security or achieve its goals of enhancing its power both regionally and globally.
The focus that Iran must have is that it faces the prospect, if it pursues nuclear weapons, of sparking an arms race in the region. That should affect the calculation of what Iran intends to do and what it believes is in its national security interest because it may render Iran less secure, not more secure.
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, reacting to Clinton's earlier comments, said it would be far better to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold than to try to counter it with a defence umbrella.
I was not thrilled to hear the American statement ... that they will protect their allies with a nuclear umbrella, as if they have already come to terms with a nuclear Iran.
I think that's a mistake. I think it would be more appropriate not to accept the premise that Iran has turned nuclear but to try to prevent this, Meridor told Israel's Army Radio.
Last week Clinton said Iran's intentions were unclear following June's disputed election there and that U.S. President Barack Obama's offer of talks with Tehran over its nuclear programme was not open-ended.
Former U.S. President George W. Bush was reluctant to engage Iran directly until it had met certain preconditions, including suspending uranium enrichment, a process that can produce fuel for nuclear power plants or atomic weapons.
But Obama, who took over in January, says that approach failed and has instead pursued a policy of engagement.
Despite the U.S. policy shift, Iran has not responded to Obama's overtures and those from other countries seeking to persuade Tehran to give up sensitive nuclear work.
(Additional reporting by Jerusalem Bureau; Editing by Dean Yates and Jeremy Laurence)