WASHINGTON – The threat of a nuclear-armed Iran is "real" for the United States, but al-Qaida poses an even greater danger, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Sunday.
"In terms of a country, obviously a nuclear-armed country like North Korea or Iran pose both a real or a potential threat," Clinton said during an interview on CNN's "State of the Union," making it clear the Iranians don't yet possess an atomic weapon.
"But I think that most of us believe the greater threats are the trans-national non-state networks," she said, referring to al-Qaida and its affiliates in Afghanistan, North Africa, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
Clinton voiced concerns about al-Qaida's level of "connectivity" and said Osama bin Laden's terror networks were continuing to "increase the sophistication of their capacity" and the kind of attacks they were planning.
Detroit had a narrow escape on Christmas Day when a young Nigerian claiming allegiance to al-Qaida, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, botched an attempt to bring down a packed transatlantic airliner as it began its descent.
"The biggest nightmare that any of us have is that one of these terrorist member organizations within this syndicate of terror will get their hands on a weapon of mass destruction," Clinton said.
She gave the interview before Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered Iran's atomic chief on Sunday to begin higher uranium enrichment, raising the stakes in its long-running dispute with the West over its nuclear ambitions.
World powers are losing patience with Iran for failing to agree to a proposal brokered by the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog that is aimed at defusing the crisis over the Islamic republic's suspect enrichment activities.
Iran appeared to reject in October a deal the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog proposed for it to export low-enriched uranium to France and Russia to be further purified into fuel for a research reactor in Tehran.
Enrichment outside of Iran is a central plank of the deal Western powers are pushing for out of fears that unsupervised enrichment could feed a covert nuclear weapons program.
Enriched uranium produces fuel for a nuclear reactor but the process can also be used to make the fissile core of an atomic bomb, which Iran denies it is seeking.
© AFP 2013