DOHA: In a charm offensive targeting Arab and Muslim public opinion, US State Secretary Hillary Clinton held a televised debate on Monday with students in Qatar at which Washington’s policies on Tehran proved a hard sell.
“It is a personal privilege for me to meet students, said a smiling Clinton as she took part in a one-hour debate, organized by the Doha-based television Al-Jazeera – a blunt critic of US policies in the Middle East – and funded by Qatar, a staunch US ally.
Clinton has been using town hall diplomacy worldwide.
The questions posed by the moderator and the audience reflected an entrenched mistrust in the US administration over both the West’s nuclear dispute with Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
One student asked Clinton: “Does the United States intend to bomb Iran, and if so, would it be before or after its withdrawal from Iraq?
The top US diplomat stressed that Washington continues to seek a diplomatic solution to the standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program, but stressed that it will “not stand idly by while Iran is pursuing it nuclear program.
She then went on to charge the Islamic republic of oppressing its opponents. “Sitting here in this wonderful campus, imagine what it would be for a young person in Iran? she asked.
The forum was held at the Qatari branch of the Carnegie Mellon University, in Doha’s City of Education, which was founded by the wife of Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, Sheikha Mozah Al-Misnid.
“Why do you refuse Iran the right to become a nuclear power, while you accept that for your allies, including Israel? a young man clad in traditional Gulf white robe asked Clinton.
She argued that the Arab states of the Gulf were even more concerned than the United States about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The audience, which included several young women in Islamic head-dress, asked awkward questions about the stalemated Middle East peace process, humanitarian conditions in Gaza and a perceived US bias against Muslims.
“It is President (Barack) Obama’s vision that we will overcome stereotypes, she responded, adding that Washington recognized the “broad diversity of the Islamic world.
She stressed the US commitment to a “new beginning in relations with the Muslim world, as declared by Obama in a landmark address to the Muslim world in a Cairo speech last June.
Clinton made the same point on Sunday in an address to the US-Islamic World Forum in Doha.
The Qatari capital was the first stop in a two-leg Gulf tour which later on Monday took her to Saudi Arabia, on a mission aimed at drumming up Gulf support for tougher sanctions against Iran.
But the students, half of them Qataris and the rest of other nationalities, did not appear convinced by Clinton’s arguments.
“She said that the neighboring countries of Iran feel threatened. But I think that it is the United States that feels threatened, and that it wants to involve us in the conflict, said Qatari student Fatima Ahmed, 21.
“Iran is free to have nuclear weapons. Why should the United States have the right to prevent it? asked Sarah Al-Saeed, another Qatari student, 20.
Clinton was more successful with Egyptian student Joseph Cosandy, 18. “She convinced me. Before I took part in this debate, I was against US policies toward Iran. Now, I understand their argument and I am pro, he said.