By Indira A.R. Lakshmanan & Nicole Gaouette
Hillary Clinton said Iran has increased the number and quality of weapons it sends Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, underscoring a top challenge facing John Kerry, her successor as U.S. secretary of state.
The Iranian government is also aiding Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based militant group that backs Assad, Clinton said yesterday in her final interview before leaving office.
“We know that the Iranians are ‘all-in’ for Assad” and that keeping their closest ally in the Middle East in power “is one of their highest priorities,” said Clinton, whose last day after four years as America’s top diplomat is today.
Clinton rejected criticism that she and President Barack Obama’s administration haven’t done enough to support the uprising against Assad that began in March 2011 or to hasten the regime’s downfall. Asked if she regretted not doing more to end the bloodletting, Clinton replied, “I did everything that I possibly could” as secretary of state since the conflict began.
Kerry, who will be sworn in late today, will confront challenges that go well beyond the Syrian civil war. Other unfinished business includes nuclear threats from Iran and North Korea, as well as the future of Afghanistan after U.S. and international combat forces withdraw by the end of 2014.
Still, trying to bring an end to the bloodshed in Syria that the United Nations estimates has claimed more than 60,000 lives was among the most urgent issues Clinton cited during the interview with reporters who have traveled with her regularly.
The U.S. has “reason to believe” Russia, like Iran, is providing financial assistance and military equipment to Assad, Clinton said, despite the Russian government’s “rhetoric” about working for a peaceful resolution of a conflict that began with a violent crackdown on demonstrations against Assad. She declined to elaborate on classified intelligence.
The “Russians are not passive bystanders in their support for Assad,” Clinton said. She also expressed disappointment in Russia’s behavior at the UN, where she said its representatives have obstructed enforcement of a transition plan agreed upon last June.
Clinton said the U.S. has made no decision on arming the Syrian opposition and has consistently warned allies who are supplying arms to the rebels about “unintended consequences.” She and other U.S. officials have previously expressed concern that weapons may fall into the hands of Islamic extremists and groups linked to al-Qaeda.
Clinton said resolving the impasse with Iran presents another major test for Kerry, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts whose resignation from Congress after 28 years takes effect today.
While favoring a negotiated settlement with the Islamic Republic over its disputed nuclear program, she said the U.S. will do whatever it must to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability.
“At some point the window for engagement has to close,” she said, declining to give a specific deadline by which Iran must comply or face military consequences. She said maintaining “ambiguity” is beneficial in the negotiations.
Iran says its atomic program is for peaceful energy and medical research. The U.S. and its allies believe Iran is seeking nuclear weapons capability.
Clinton said U.S. sanctions have led to a sharp drop in Iranian oil exports. While Iran may be trying to dodge restrictions, she said, the U.S. is satisfied with compliance by nations such as China, India and Turkey that earned 180-day renewable exemptions by cutting purchases of Iranian crude.
She downplayed a media report that Iran’s oil exports rose in December, saying that monthly numbers shouldn’t be taken at “face value” because numerous factors are behind any figures.
Clinton said the failure of diplomatic efforts so far to resolve the dispute with Iran or to persuade Assad to end the conflict in Syria doesn’t mean that Obama’s strategy to extend an “open hand” to hostile regimes was a mistake.
Engagement remains a “central pillar” of the president’s strategy, she said, and he “hasn’t given up.”
She cited Myanmar, the Southeast Asian nation formerly known as Burma, as a case in which the military junta began to question why the economies of neighboring countries were thriving thanks to international trade, while their own country was isolated by U.S. sanctions.
The U.S. strategy to gradually reward the junta’s reforms, “action for action,” paid dividends with the release of political prisoners and open elections, Clinton said.
The hermetic and isolated nature of North Korea’s regime has made reaching out to that country particularly hard. Clinton said the administration thought it was “making headway” before supreme leader Kim Jong Il died and his son Kim Jong Un, “who we are still taking stock of,” rose to power.
Clinton also discussed the future of Afghanistan as the U.S.-led coalition force prepares to withdraw combat troops by the end of next year.
“Obviously I’m worried about the end state in Afghanistan, which is why we’re trying very hard” to plan a responsible drawdown, she said.
A particular concern is the outlook for Afghan women and their rights to education and economic opportunity, she said. Clinton has agreed to continue serving on the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council along with former First Lady Laura Bush.
Clinton sees a “transitional period” ahead, during which she said it is critical that the U.S. and other nations support Afghan civil society and Afghan women.
“We have to keep this issue front and center,” she said.
Earlier yesterday, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, Clinton outlined her vision for bolstering U.S. influence in her final policy speech as secretary.
Clinton said criticism that her emphasis on technology, human rights, women and development is “a bit soft,” misses the point. It’s a “false choice” to see traditional tools of power and so-called soft power as mutually exclusive, she said.
Instead, she calls the mix of the two “smart power” and offered examples of how that has worked in Asia and the Middle East. That approach also requires broader engagement, said Clinton, who set records for the position by traveling to 112 countries in her four-year term.