RIYADH The United States believes Iran's Revolutionary Guards are driving the country toward military dictatorship and should be targeted in any new U.N. sanctions, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday.
Speaking in Qatar before flying to Riyadh, Clinton denied the United States planned to attack Iran and said Washington wanted dialogue but could not "stand idly by" while Iran pursued a suspected nuclear weapons program.
Asked if Washington planned to attack Iran, she replied: "No, we are planning to try to bring the world community together in applying pressure to Iran through sanctions adopted by the United Nations that will be particularly aimed at those enterprises controlled by the Revolutionary Guard, which we believe is, in effect, supplanting the government of Iran."
"That is how we see it. We see that the government of Iran, the supreme leader, the president, the parliament, is being supplanted and that Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship. That is our view," she said, speaking to students in a televised session.
Clinton later told reporters in Riyadh that she hoped "this is not a permanent change but that instead the religious and political leaders of Iran act to take back the authority which they should be exercising on behalf of the people."
The United States is leading a push for the U.N. Security Council to impose a fourth round of sanctions on Iran, which says its nuclear program is to generate electricity so it can export more of its valuable oil and gas.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told reporters that sanctions may work but that Iran's Gulf neighbors hoped for a more "immediate resolution."
"Sanctions are a long-term solution. They may work, we can't judge. But we see the issue in the shorter term maybe because we are closer to the threat ... So we need an immediate resolution rather than a gradual resolution," he said.
In Moscow on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to back "sanctions with teeth" targeting Iran's energy sector.
Clinton's remarks were the most open assessment by a senior U.S. official about what they regard as the growing influence of Iran's Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), an elite force whose influence has grown in recent years through a network of banks, shipping firms and other companies under its control.
The IRGC, set up after Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution to protect the ruling system against internal and external threats, has 125,000 fighters with army, navy and air units. It operates separately from the 350,000-strong army and answers to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's top authority.
The IRGC is involved in construction and has expanded to cover areas such as import-export, oil and gas, defense, transport and infrastructure projects.
"I think the civilian leadership is either preoccupied with its internal domestic political situation or ceding ground to the Revolutionary Guard and that's a deeply concerning development," Clinton told reporters aboard her plane.
The West and many Arab states believe Iran is using its civil nuclear program as a cover to develop nuclear weapons. Iran has said that the program is simply to generate power so it can export more of its valuable oil and gas.
Clinton has acknowledged that U.S. President Barack Obama's approach to Iran had not borne fruit, blaming Iran for refusing to engage and suggesting that a fourth U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution was the only option.
"What we are trying to do is to send a message to Iran, a very clear message, that we still would be open to engagement, we still believe that there is a different path for Iran to take," she said.
"But we want the world united in sending an unequivocal message to Iran that we will not stand idly by while you pursue a nuclear program that can be used to threaten your neighbors and even beyond," she added.
In Washington, a National Security Council spokesman called on Iran to accept a deal from October to send uranium abroad for enrichment, a position echoed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
While Arab states fear the possibility of Iran getting the bomb, and warn that it could spark a regional arms race, they are also uneasy about the possibility that military action by Israel against Iran could profoundly destabilize the region.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said last week that Iran was able to enrich uranium to more than 80 percent purity, close to levels experts say would be needed for a nuclear bomb, but denied Iran had any intention of building one.
Clinton, expected to seek more diplomatic pressure on Iran, held a nearly four-hour meeting with Saudi King Abdullah.
U.S. officials hinted that one way Saudi Arabia could help diplomatically would be to offer China guarantees it would meet Chinese oil requirements, a step that might ease Beijing's reluctance to impose further sanctions on Iran.
China, which wields a veto on the Security Council, has lucrative commercial relationships with Iran and, along with Russia, has worked to dilute previous sanctions resolutions.
Other U.S. officials said they believed Saudi Arabia, which has recently increased its diplomatic and commercial contacts with China, had made some gestures toward Beijing on fuel assurances but gave no details.