Clinton warns of new nuclear arms race


US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Saudi college students today that if Iran gets a nuclear weapon it could trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

"Then you have all kinds of opportunity for problems that can be quite dangerous," she said.

Mrs Clinton spoke at an all-woman college in Jeddah called Dar al-Hekma, which translates in English to "House of Wisdom." Her appearance at the college was highly unusual in a conservative Muslim nation.

Secretary of State Clinton listed a number of Iranian actions that she said violated its obligation not to pursue nuclear weapons, including construction of the Qom enrichment facility that came to light last autumn.

"You have to ask yourself, 'Why are they doing this?'" Mrs Clinton said.

Noting that Iran insists it is not pursuing the bomb, she said, "The evidence doesn't support that."

"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.

Clinton also called Iran "the largest supporter of terrorism in the world today."

She said the goal is to have not only a non-nuclear Iran but also an entire Middle East free of nuclear weapons.

"If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, that hope disappears," she said, "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.

A graduate of the college, Dalai M. Khayat, said in an interview after Clinton departed she was pleased that Clinton had come, but saw some of her responses to audience members as "not that fulfilling."

Khayat said she was a bit disappointed that Clinton had not responded fully to a student who had asked why Israel should not be forced to give up its nuclear weapons, given U.S. opposition to a nuclear Iran. Israel has not formally declared itself a nuclear power but is widely believed to have a relatively small arsenal of weapons.

Clinton had said the US wants to see the entire Middle East free of nuclear weapons, but she did not mention Israel.

Khayat said Clinton's appearance was "a huge step forward" for Saudi Arabia," given its closed nature and social conservatism.

Clinton is an unlikely role model for Saudi women. Saudi law bars women from voting, except for chamber of commerce elections in two cities in recent years, and no woman can sit in the kingdom's Cabinet. Women also cannot drive or travel without permission from a male guardian.

Clinton was winding up a three-day Persian Gulf visit that began on Sunday in Qatar and continued in the Saudi capital of Riyadh yesterday. She will return to Washington later today.