There are signs that Iran is sending growing numbers of people and increasingly sophisticated weaponry to support Syrian President Bashar Assad, outgoing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Thursday.
"It appears that they may be increasing that involvement and that is a matter of great concern to us," she told reporters as she prepares to step down on Friday. "I think the numbers (of people) have increased ... There is a lot of concern that they are increasing the quality of the weapons, because Assad is using up his weaponry. So it's numbers and it's materiel."
“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,” Clinton said in a wide- ranging, final interview as secretary of state.
In a round-table session with reporters who traveled with her over the past four years, Clinton outlined pieces of unfinished business that her successor, Secretary of State- designate John Kerry, will need to address from his first full day in office Feb. 4: the conflict in Syria, the nuclear challenges from Iran and North Korea, and the future of Afghanistan after US and international forces withdraw by the end of 2014.
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 cited by Clinton.
The US 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 to a peaceful resolution of the conflict that began in March 2011 with a violent crackdown on uprisings 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 they have obstructed efforts to enforce a transition plan agreed upon last June.
Clinton said the US has made no decision on arming the Syrian opposition and has consistently warned Persian Gulf allies who are supplying weaponry to the rebels about possible “unintended consequences.” She and other US officials have previously expressed concern that weapons would fall into the hands of Islamic extremists and groups linked to al-Qaida.
She said the struggle through the 1980s to expel the Soviet Union from Afghanistan -- and the chaos that followed --presents a cautionary tale that arming an opposition “may not turn out exactly as you’d hoped.”
'Window for Iranian nuclear negotiations closing'
Clinton also addressed the Iranian nuclear threat, saying that the window for negotiations with Tehran about its nuclear program cannot stay open for "too much longer."
"I don't think the window can remain open for too much longer (but) I am not going to put days, weeks or months on it," Clinton stated.
Iran has refused to set a date and venue for fresh talks with six major powers on its nuclear program, a reluctance that Clinton ascribed to "a lot of disagreement within the highest levels of the regime about how to handle this" as well as to political jockeying ahead of Iran's June presidential election.
"They will decide to meet or not to meet based on their own internal calculations," Clinton said. "They have an election coming up in June. People are jockeying to see who the supreme leader is going to anoint to be the next president.
"They are preoccupied with their internal political calculations and that's far more important to them right now than setting a date and a time" to meet the six major powers: Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States.
Clinton said that US President Barack Obama had never given up on the idea of engaging Iran but she stressed this was only one side of its dual-track policy with economic sanctions as the other.