By: Helene Cooper and Isabel Kershner, The New York Times
Washington - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice escalated the Bush administration's anti-Iran rhetoric on Tuesday, accusing its government of pursuing nuclear weapons and calling any dialogue with its leaders pointless until they suspend the country's enrichment of uranium.
While Ms. Rice's message was familiar, the tone of her speech, before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, was unusually sharp, taking oblique aim at Senator Barack Obama and other Democratic leaders who have called for the United States to engage Iran diplomatically.
"We would be willing to meet with them but not while they continue to inch toward nuclear weapons under the cover of talks," she told the group, a pro-Israel lobby known by its acronym, Aipac. "The real question isn't why won't the Bush administration talk to Iran. The real question is why won't Iran talk to us."
Ms. Rice stopped short of calling for consideration of military strikes against suspected Iranian nuclear targets, as some national security conservatives in Vice President Dick Cheney's office have advised. But, in a pointed nod to her pro-Israel audience, Ms. Rice called on America's allies in Europe to look for ways to further press the Iranian government.
"For the sake of peace, the world must not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon," she said.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, on the other hand, put all options on the table. "The Iranian threat must be stopped by all possible means," he said Tuesday evening, speaking to the same group. "The international community has a duty and responsibility to clarify to Iran, through drastic measures, that the repercussions of their continued pursuit of nuclear weapons will be devastating."
Mr. Olmert also called for international sanctions against Iran to be toughened. He did not specifically mention military strikes, but did say that "Israel will not tolerate the possibility of a nuclear Iran, and neither should any country in the free world."
Mr. Olmert is scheduled to meet with President Bush at the White House on Wednesday.
The issue of opening high-level diplomatic talks with Iran has come under the spotlight this political season, and that has played out at Aipac's 2008 policy conference here.
On Monday, Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, allied himself firmly with the Bush administration and charged that Mr. Obama's calls for diplomacy with Iran were misguided and insufficient. And on Tuesday, Howard Friedman, Aipac's president, used his introduction of Ms. Rice to implore her "to use your remaining time in office to ensure that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon."
Mr. Obama, who is seeking the Democratic nomination, will have the opportunity to defend his position on Wednesday when he, along with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, his opponent, is scheduled to address the group.
Ms. Rice's speech was also notable for what it did not contain; she did not say that the Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that the Bush administration has been pursuing could be achieved by the end of the year.
"We still believe that we have a chance to reach an agreement on the basic contours of a peaceful Palestinian state," Ms. Rice said. "But if we can pursue this goal by the end of the year, it will be an historic breakthrough."
The difference seems small, but in the past President Bush and Ms. Rice have both spoken of sealing a deal by the end of the year, rather than simply pursuing one.
While Mr. Olmert was in Washington, in Israel, two senior members of his Kadima Party, both contenders to replace him as party leader in the event of his downfall over corruption charges, spoke out on national security issues.
Shaul Mofaz, the minister of transportation and a deputy prime minister, toured the Golan Heights on Tuesday and, in apparent contradiction with Mr. Olmert's policy, declared his opposition to returning that territory to Syria, which lost it to Israel in the 1967 war.
Mr. Mofaz said that it was possible to achieve peace with Syria without giving up the heights, and that "the significance of handing the Golan to the Syrians is Iranians in the Golan." Mr. Mofaz, born in Tehran, was referring to the alliance between Syria and Iran.
Although Mr. Olmert is widely believed to support Mr. Mofaz as a possible successor, Mr. Mofaz's message was a surprise. Israel and Syria recently resumed talks through Turkish mediation, and while Mr. Olmert denies having made any prior commitment to the Syrians regarding a withdrawal from the Golan, he says he is fully aware of Syria's expectations, as Syria is of Israel's.
Syria demands full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan while Israel expects Damascus to move out of the Iranian sphere and cease its support for militant anti-Israel organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah.
Israel's foreign minister and vice prime minister, Tzipi Livni, another Kadima Party leader who may one day replace Mr. Olmert, told Parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday that it was important to keep the threat of a military option on the table for stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Iran says that its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only, which its supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reiterated in a speech on Tuesday.
The Iranian issue was to figure prominently in Mr. Olmert's talks with American officials, according to the Israeli news media. Administration and Israeli officials said that President Bush could soon announce a security package for Israel that could include cruise missiles and a permanent hookup to a worldwide warning system against incoming ballistic missiles.
Ms. Rice alluded to such a package in her Aipac speech. "We will continue to improve the security capability of our friends, including their missile defense," she said.
Helene Cooper reported from Washington, and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem.
Wednesday 04 June 2008