Page last updated at 21:07 GMT, Thursday, 23 July 2009 22:07 UK

Turmoil has put Iran 'on hold'

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Phuket

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "We're willing to engage with Iran"

The political turmoil inside Iran has left Washington grappling for a way forward in its attempts to engage its long-time foe.

In a BBC interview, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tehran did not have the "capacity" to make decisions about its relations with the outside world at the moment.

"The internal debates going on inside Iran have made it difficult, if not impossible, for them to pursue any diplomatic engagement, not just with us but anyone, like the P5+1 (permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany), there is so much that is on hold."

She added that Washington was looking to engage Iran as an entity, and as a country that was on the path to acquiring nuclear weapons.

She refused to be drawn on whether the US would talk to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad if he accepted the offer of engagement, saying it was hypothetical.

Asian arms race

The secretary of state repeated her comments about a defence umbrella over the Gulf region, which have alarmed Israel.

She described it as a restatement of policy that is rooted in bilateral relationships with countries in the Gulf.

"You know we do a lot of military business and sell a lot of weapons systems in the Gulf, [it's part of our] commitment to making sure that Iran doesn't get a nuclear weapon to undermine their confidence that this is the right path to take and continue doing what we're doing which is to beef up the defensive capabilities of countries that are very worried about Iran."

I've been quite amazed at the extent to which other countries are willing to go to enforce these sanctions [on North Korea]
Hillary Clinton,
US Secretary of State

Engagement and nuclear proliferation were the themes of the day at the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) summit. At the top of Mrs Clinton's agenda here was North Korea's nuclear programme and Burma.

While Mrs Clinton told North Korea it had no friends left, and Pyongyang responded by calling her "not intelligent" and "a funny lady", the secretary of state said she had been "amazed" by the cooperation in efforts against North Korea.

A US official travelling with the delegation described it as a collective policy that was paying off.

Mrs Clinton said: "I've been quite amazed at the extent to which other countries are willing to go to enforce these sanctions which says to me that they are now equally concerned about the possible implications, not only of North Korea having deliverable nuclear weapons which we are determined to prevent, but also the arms race it would provoke in the region."

Such an arms race, she added, would destabilise North East Asia, "which is the principal reason why I think China is committed to do all that it can with us to try to remove that danger".

Brokering deals

A united front also appeared to emerge on Burma, at least according to the secretary of state.

She said Asean countries were "of one voice" and that Nobel peace prize winner Aung Sang Suu Kuii should be released, but she also indicated that engagement was being considered.

"There have also been volunteers from amongst neighbouring nations, the Indonesians are particularly keen to do that," she said.

"There's a willingness on the part of many neighbours and those who do business with Burma to try to up the contact and the pressure to help them see a way forward."

"Part of the challenge [is that] the people currently running Burma are worried that if they give up power and move toward democracy, they could end up in an international criminal court," Mrs Clinton said, indicating that "two foreign ministers" in the region had mentioned the point to her.

"So a lot of the neighbours in the region are actually thinking of taking a more pro-active approach through Asean's regional forum to try to think of deals that could be brokered."

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