U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Sunday renewed her criticism of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for saying last month that Israel  should be "wiped off the map." Ms. Rice, in an address in Jerusalem before talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, said "no civilized nation" should make such a threat.

Ms. Rice has been touting the advance of democratic reform in the Islamic world on her current Middle East trip.

But in an address to an American-Israeli policy symposium in Jerusalem, she made clear her view that Iran is moving against that trend, with a government that is becoming more divorced from the will of its citizens, and more threatening.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad, an Islamic hard-liner elected in June in a contest from which many moderate candidates were excluded, drew harsh criticism from the United States and many other countries last month when he declared that Israel is what he termed a "disgraceful blot" that should be wiped off the map.

The Secretary of State said that despite the skepticism of many, she believes that greater political freedom will lead to peace in the Middle East regions.

 She said authoritarian regimes, when they cannot ensure security and prosperity, look for "false legitimacy" by blaming their failures on modernity, the United States or Jews, and suggested that Mr. Ahmadinejad is just such a leader:

"When we look at a nation like Iran, we see an educated and sophisticated people who are the bearers of a great civilization," Ms. Rice said.  "And we also see that as Iran's government has grown more divorced from the will of its citizens, it has become more threatening, not less threatening.  No civilized nation should have a leader who wishes, or hopes, or desires, or considers it a matter of policy to express that another country should be pushed into the sea.  It is simply unacceptable in the international system. "

Ms. Rice said if given real freedom, it is doubtful that the people of Iran would choose to deepen their country's isolation through such incendiary statements and threatening policies.

The United States has been at odds with Iran over what U.S. officials maintain is a covert Iranian nuclear weapons effort, and support by the Tehran government for terrorism and so-called "rejectionist" Palestinian factions seeking to thwart Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

Ms. Rice was preceded to the podium at the event sponsored by the U.S. based Mideast policy group, the Saban Center, by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who launched his own verbal attack on Iran. Heard through an interpreter, Mr. Sharon lumped Iran and Syria together in what he termed an "axis of evil"  and cast Iran as a global threat to stability:

"Iran's vigorous efforts to obtain nuclear weapons and encouragement to terror are the single greatest threat to stability in the Middle East and beyond," Mr. Sharon said. "The international community understands the dangers emanating from Iran and the need to confront it.  We believe that the Iranian nuclear issue must be addressed by the U.N. Security Council, since the International Atomic Energy Agency's efforts have been exhausted."

Mr. Sharon said Syria has again proved that it is led by an "irresponsible leadership" that has encouraged the continuation of terrorist activity against Israel, and along its border with Iraq against U.S. and other foreign targets.

In her speech, Secretary Rice said Syria has increasingly isolated itself through support of terrorism, interference and destabilizing behavior in the region, and its "possible role" in the murder last February of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

In a talk with reporters en route to Jerusalem from Saudi Arabia, Ms. Rice decried criminal charges filed against Syrian dissident figure Kamal Labwani in recent days, saying the action shows that Syria is not a place where freedoms have yet taken hold, and that the Syrian government is again out of step with the region.