Clinton urges 'responsible' leaders to take control in Iran
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Sunday on "responsible" leaders to assert control in Iran and said tough UN sanctions were turning the screw on the military-backed regime.
Short of an explicit call to the Iranian people to revolt, Clinton's comments represented a sharpening of rhetoric as she increasingly seeks to portray Iran as a military dictatorship.
Clinton said the military, especially the elite Revolutionary Guard, was wielding more and more power to prop up a regime struggling to maintain its legitimacy since last year's "very flawed" presidential elections.
"And I can only hope that there will be some effort inside Iran, by responsible civil and religious leaders, to take hold of the apparatus of the state," she told ABC News.
"When you empower a military as much as they have to rely on them to put down legitimate protests and demonstrations, you create a momentum and unleash forces that you do not know where they will end up.
"And I know that that's a concern of people inside Iran. We read reports coming out of Iran. And it is something that would be even more distressing for the Iranian people."
The remarks drew an angry response from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, interviewed by ABC in New York where he is to attend next week's UN General Assembly.
"Don't you think that Mrs. Clinton should think a little bit before she makes statements of such nature?" he asked.
"I think Mrs. Clinton is a very respected woman, but she should really gather more correct information to base her statements on accurate information."
Iranian opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have repeatedly called for fresh presidential elections and rejected Ahmadinejad's authority since he was re-elected in June 2009.
They quickly dismissed the result as having been massively rigged, sparking street protests which rocked the Islamic republic for the rest of the year.
Security forces cracked down heavily on dissent, with dozens of protesters killed, hundreds arrested and scores of prominent reformists, journalists and rights campaigners put on trial and receiving stiff prison sentences.
Clinton said the United States had made it "very clear" it was fully behind the Iranian people's efforts to demonstrate against the "illegitimate" election.
"But we also knew that the worst thing for those protesting was for them to be seen as stooges of the United States," she said.
"Now it's very delicate... But our bottom line is, we think the Iranian people deserve so much more than what they are now being given and we are worried about the direction we see Iran headed."
The United States has been leading international efforts to subdue the threat posed by Iran's suspect nuclear activities and Clinton praised the fourth round of sanctions imposed by the United Nations in June.
"They're biting. And we hear that from many in the region and beyond," she said.
"The information we're getting is that the Iranian regime is quite worried about the impact on their banking system, on their economic growth, because they've already encountered some tough economic times."
But Ahmadinejad defiantly shrugged off the measures and maintained that Iran's economy was rock solid.
"These sanctions will definitively mark a new level of progress in our economy," he told ABC News. "We have turned sanctions around and created opportunities out of this."
The last high-level meeting between Iran and the six world powers was held in Geneva in October 2009 when the two sides agreed a nuclear fuel swap deal that has since stalled.
Ahmadinejad, who strongly denies that Iran intends to build a nuclear weapon, insisted Tehran wanted more talks with the international community but stopped short of calling for a specific meeting.
"We have a plan to discuss things, to discuss issues," he told ABC. "We've always been ready to discuss issues as long as they're within the legal framework and based on principles of justice and respect."
A US official said diplomats from the six world powers monitoring Iran's nuclear program would meet this coming week in New York.
Ahmadinejad also pressed the United States to release eight Iranians as a "humanitarian gesture" after the release of American hiker Sarah Shourd.
On her return to New York, Shourd said she felt only "one-third free" as she issued an emotional plea for the release of her fiance and a third hiker still detained by Tehran.