Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton set off tremors in the Middle East this week when she said a nuclear Iran could be contained by a U.S. "defense umbrella" — an offhand remark that appears to have emerged from obscure Washington policy debates and her own presidential campaign rhetoric.
Clinton’s comments raised eyebrows because they seemed to go beyond the Obama administration’s current thinking on Iran, which has been strictly focused on preventing the country from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Since making the remark on a television chat show in Thailand, Clinton has backpedaled, saying she was only restating existing policy and not referring to any sort of formal guarantees of protection under an American "nuclear umbrella."
And when Israeli officials raised alarms that she seemed to suggest the U.S. was resigned to a nuclear-armed Iran, Clinton and senior State Department officials hastily insisted such a prospect was still unacceptable and that no policy had changed.
But her comments sounded uncannily like the harder-edged "nuclear umbrella" approach toward Iran that Clinton and several other top advisers to President Barack Obama had pushed before they joined his administration.
Bringing both Arab allies and Israel under a protective U.S. "nuclear umbrella" is an idea that has been batted around Washington since fears of Iran’s ambitions first percolated in the late 1990s.
Clinton herself raised the notion of such a policy during her unsuccessful presidential campaign last year.
"We should be looking to create an umbrella of deterrence that goes much further than just Israel," she said in an April 2008 debate with Obama. "Of course, I would make it clear to the Iranians that an attack on Israel would incur massive retaliation from the United States. But I would do the same with other countries in the region."
During that debate, Obama affirmed support for Israel’s security but did not suggest protecting Arab states.
Some policy experts say Clinton’s umbrella reference was simple carelessness. Others wonder if it is indicative of an administration that has yet to show discipline in foreign policy thought and action.
"This is something that a secretary of state, in an academic or off-the-record setting, might muse about," said Aaron David Miller, a former Mideast peace negotiator now with the Woodrow Wilson Center International Center for Scholars.
"But saying it on the road and on-the-record is something else," he said. "It reflects to a certain degree a problem. It reflects a certain confusion in the administration’s approach and the absence still of a coherent and cohesive strategy."
During her trip last week, Clinton mentioned a "defense umbrella" during an interview on Thai television Wednesday.
"We want Iran to calculate," she said, "what I think is a fair assessment: that if the United States extends a defense umbrella over the region, if we do even more to develop the military capacity of those (allies) in the Gulf, it is unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer because they won’t be able to intimidate and dominate as they apparently believe they can once they have a nuclear weapon," she said.
A day later, she insisted to another interviewer that the "defense umbrella" was "nothing specific."
"It is a sort of general term that is used to describe our commitment to making sure that Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon," she said.
The White House declined to comment on what options may now be under consideration for dealing with Iran. But it refused to rule out any measure.
"As the president has said many times, we are using all elements of American power, including diplomacy, to ensure Iran does not develop nuclear weapons," said spokesman Tommy Vietor.
Despite Clinton’s insistence that her phrasing was general, the concept of an American "nuclear umbrella" protecting Mideast nations from Iran has wafted through Washington think tanks for several years.
The concept is based on the Cold War era of deterrence and aims to stop a nuclear-armed country from threatening an unarmed neighbor.
Dennis Ross, who worked for Clinton at the State Department and now heads Mideast policy at the National Security Council, and Robert Einhorn, now a special adviser for nonproliferation and arms control at State — both lent their names to consideration of the concept.
Both advisers were formerly affiliated with the Washington Institute on Near East Policy, which in March of this year published a report that recommended studying the idea closely. The study noted that Ross and Einhorn, who had already resigned to work with Obama, had endorsed drafts of the report.
The report noted there were some pitfalls with the idea. For one, Iran may not feel deterred by such a move, it said. For another, Israel would object on several grounds, including the possibility that it would limit its own deterrent capability.
Ross, testifying before Congress in April 2008, also warned that "our security assurances may not be particularly relevant to the threats that most worry Middle Eastern regimes."
The concept of a "nuclear umbrella" to deter Iran first crystalized around 2004, according to experts. Patrick Clawson, Ross’ former colleague at the Washington institute, wrote about it in 2004, saying that "extending an explicit nuclear umbrella to those threatened by Iran" should be considered.
But there is a sharp line, Miller said, between weighing policy notions in private and putting them out in public before they have been carefully explored and vetted.
"You don’t discuss something like this in the open, particularly when you haven’t decided on policy," Miller said, "because everything you say is going to be put under a microscope and dissected for clues about how we’re going to act."