Rice 'working the phones' on Iran

Trying to convince allies easing pressure would be "big mistake" - despite new intel assessment.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is working the phones to defend the Bush administration's strategy on Iran and to explain a new US intelligence assessment that Teheran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, a startling turnabout that contradicted past US conclusions. Rice said Tuesday it would be a "big mistake" to ease any diplomatic pressure on Iran despite the new US findings. "It doesn't mean you should take the pressure off," she said en route to Ethiopia to see African leaders. "It puts a premium on diplomatic efforts." "I continue to see Iran as a dangerous power in international politics," Rice told reporters traveling with her. "At this moment, it doesn't appear to have an active weaponization program. That frankly is good news. But if it causes people to say, 'Oh, well, then we don't need to worry about what the Iranians are doing,' I think we will have made a big mistake." Rice has been telephoning foreign ministers of US allies such as Germany, Britain and France, as well as their counterparts in China and Russia, which have blocked a recent US push to punish Iran with new sanctions, since Monday's report by US intelligence agencies about Iran's nuclear program. Rice spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Tuesday and expects to see him later this week at a NATO meeting in Brussels, where she will have to defend the continuing US effort to force another round of international sanctions on Iran. "What I am going to say to my colleagues is, 'Look, we have got the right strategy,"' Rice said. Her efforts are in advance of President George W. Bush's planned trip to the Mideast early next month, where Iran's nuclear program is likely to be a topic of discussion. Rice said it may take some time for US allies to understand the administration's new conclusions on Iran, but she said there should be great concern still about the Islamic republic's continuing preprocessing and enrichment of uranium, which Teheran insists is only for civilian energy production. Such an enrichment program also could lead to nuclear weapons production. "We need to do everything we can to stop them from being able to perfect this enrichment and reprocessing program," she said. The US secretary of state urged nations such as China and Russia not to harden their stance against a new round of sanctions, arguing that the fact that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 because of international pressure shows that diplomacy works. "We know that pressure has worked in the past and it caused them to do something very important," Rice said. "Now let's use our collective efforts to cause them to take the next important step," she added, referring to a potential halt to its enrichment of uranium. Rice said she wants officials from other countries to try to understand the nuance of the new US intelligence assessment. "People need the opportunity to absorb what they've heard," she said. "We have been completely transparent about what the intelligence assessment says. And people need a chance to read it. When they do that and when they read it in its detail and nuance, they will be able to see the points that I have made." Iran on Tuesday said the new US intelligence report is vindication that its nuclear program is peaceful. And Iranian officials insisted that the US should take a less hawkish stance and drop attempts to impose new sanctions in light of the report's conclusion that Iran shows no signs of resuming any weapons work. Bush ruled out any change in policy, telling a White House news conference Tuesday that sanctions were still needed to force Iran to stop uranium enrichment, which he warned could be used for building atomic warheads someday. France and Britain also said pressure must be maintained on Teheran. Even Russia said Iran must open its nuclear program fully to international scrutiny and keep it under control of the UN atomic watchdog agency. Defense Minister Ehud Barak disputed the US conclusions, saying Israeli intelligence believes Iran is still trying to develop nuclear weapons.