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Rice Backs Referral of Iran's Nuclear 'Defiance' to Security Council

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Thursday expressed strong U.S. support for the European move to take the issue of Iran's nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council. The secretary accused Iran of deliberately escalating the confrontation over the issue, but said the United States still hopes for a diplomatic solution.

The secretary of state endorsed the European decision in a statement to reporters, saying "provocative" Iranian actions in recent days had shattered the basis for further talks between Iran and the EU-Three, and left no choice but to seek the Security Council referral.

The United States has long maintained that Iran's nominally peaceful nuclear program conceals an ambitious secret weapons effort, and supports taking the matter to the Security Council, which could impose a variety of sanctions against Tehran.

However, Secretary Rice stressed that taking the matter to the Security Council via an emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency does not mean an end to diplomacy with Iran, but rather a new and more intensive phase of it.

Under questioning, she rejected a comparison between the current situation and activity in the Security Council leading up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

"The situations are of course very different. The Security Council is a very important step because it brings a certain weight to the IAEA requirements that are currently not there. We would hope that what we will be able to do is get the answers that the Iranians need to give to the IAEA. We would hope to use the Security Council to get clarification on some of the issues that Iranians have refused to answer to this point. So I would just want to underscore that this is not an issue of the end of diplomacy," she said.

The secretary said it was premature to talk about possible U.N. sanctions or whether permanent Security Council members Russia and China, which have extensive commercial dealings with Iran, could be persuaded to support them.

She noted that both powers had been warning Iran not to take the actions it did this week at its nuclear sites that led to the deepening of the diplomatic confrontation.

She said she intended to speak shortly with Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing as part of a far-reaching U.S. diplomatic push on the Iran issue.

It will include the dispatch of Under-Secretaries of State Nicolas Burns and Robert Joseph to Europe and elsewhere in the coming days to lay diplomatic groundwork for the special IAEA meeting and the Security Council deliberations that would presumably follow.

Officials here have acknowledged the difficulty of finding U.N. sanctions, if it came to that, which would penalize the Iranian leadership but not the Iranian people who are already under severe economic pressure.

Secretary Rice was at pains in her remarks to stress that the U.S. grievance is not with the Iranian people but with the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and unelected clerical authorities who hold sway in Tehran.

"This is about the Iranian regime, and it is the Iranian regime that is isolating Iran. And I think you make a good point: nobody wants to see the Iranian people for whom we have enormous respect, it's a great culture, it's a great people that should be on the road to modernization and integration into the international system. We don't want to see those people isolated," she said.

The secretary said since he came to power last year, President Ahmadinejahd has done nothing but confront the international system on the nuclear issue, and with outrageous statements, the likes of which she said "have not been made in polite company" in many years.

She said his much publicized threats to wipe Israel off the map have only helped to "seal the view" internationally that Iran should not have access to nuclear weapons technology.