DOHA (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called on Sunday for more pressure on Iran to curb its nuclear program on a Gulf visit aimed at promoting Arab-Israeli peace and improving U.S. ties with the Islamic world.
Speaking at a conference on U.S.-Muslim relations, Clinton solicited regional support to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and she sought to blunt anger at U.S. airline screening policies that many Muslims see as discriminatory.
Making her first stop on a three-day visit to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, Clinton spend much of her time explaining why the United States believes further U.N. sanctions may be the only way to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.
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 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.
“I would like to figure out a way to handle it in as peaceful an approach possible, and I certainly welcome any meaningful engagement, but ... we don’t want to be engaging while they are building their bomb,” Clinton said at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum conference.
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.
“For us, as a small country, stability and peace is very important,” said Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim al-Thani, whose government sponsored the conference with the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
“The best thing for this problem is direct dialogue between the United States and Iran,” he added.
Clinton also took on other issues of concern in the Arab world, including unhappiness at the Obama administration’s failure to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the absence of democracy in many states in the region and U.S. screening policies imposed to try to prevent airliner attacks.
“I know people are disappointed that we have not yet achieved a breakthrough,” Clinton said of the six-decade Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “This is hard work.”
She also sought to blunt a perception that the United States has done too little to promote democracy and human rights in the region, a point made sharply by exiled Egyptian sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim.
“I want to tell you we have freedom of expression in Egypt. The question is freedom after expression. That is what is lacking,” he said prompting laughter and applause. “What is the U.S. stance on the rights of dissidents in the Muslim world?”
Clinton stressed long-standing U.S. support for human rights and, elsewhere in her speech, asked for patience from travelers for tougher airline screening procedures following the abortive Christmas Day airliner bombing near Detroit.
Several people in the audience were not impressed.
“You do feel like you are being picked out. Just by being what you are, you’re guilty -- it’s for you to prove your innocence,” said Fuad Nahdi. “So that makes it hard for me to accept (the U.S.) rhetoric.”
Editing by Ralph Boulton