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Iran policy to figure prominently in Rice's first diplomatic trip

LONDON—Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signaled Thursday that President Bush will pursue a tough policy toward Iran in his second term, saying the United States won't join negotiations on Tehran's nuclear weapons program and calling the country's "un-elected mullahs" out of step with Middle East trends.

Rice, setting out on a weeklong dash through Europe and the Middle East in which Iran policy will figure prominently, said she'll try to forge a "unity of message" with Europe over Iran's nuclear weapons program, its support for terrorism and its violent opposition to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

But she rebuffed European pleas that the United States join its diplomatic outreach to Iran aimed at halting its enrichment of uranium, which can be used in nuclear weapons.

While calling the European effort "welcome," Rice told reporters aboard her trans-Atlantic flight: "It is not the absence of anybody's involvement that is keeping the Iranians from knowing what they need to do.

"The Iranians have not shown any real indications that they're prepared to live up to their obligations" not to develop nuclear arms, Rice said. "They continue to play games every time they can."

Rice's comments reflect the Bush administration's skepticism that Iran can be trusted to keep an agreement.

But coming at the outset of her first overseas trip as secretary of state, the fresh U.S. refusal to deal directly with Iran is likely to be greeted with dismay in Britain, France and Germany, the three European nations conducting the talks.

The Europeans say the negotiations, which have stalled, will fail without the credibility of U.S. involvement.

European diplomats have told their U.S. counterparts that "if this fails, it's because you guys didn't play ball," a senior State Department official in Washington said earlier this week.

Rice's trip, like Bush's own visit to Europe later this month, is aimed at forging a new approach with Europe to replace the deep divisions over the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that while differences will remain on such issues as Iran, the European Union's plan to lift its arms embargo on China, and U.S. opposition to the International Criminal Court, the point is to focus on areas of agreement and "put in the right size and shape box the issues where we disagree."

Iran says it's developing a nuclear capability for civilian power generation, which it's permitted to do under the 1968 Nonproliferation Treaty.

The U.S. government, along with many nonproliferation experts, doubts that. Iran has acknowledged nuclear developments only when confronted with evidence of activities it was trying to hide, critics note.

The European negotiations with Iran are aimed at securing a verifiable freeze in uranium enrichment and other activity, in return for a trade deal, aid and energy assistance.

Beyond the nuclear issue, Rice had blunt words for Iran's theocratic government, echoing comments Bush made in his State of the Union address Wednesday.

"I don't think anybody thinks that the un-elected mullahs who run that regime are a good thing for either the Iranian people or for the region," she said. The Middle East "is going in a quite different direction," she added, referring to recent elections in Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

U.S. allies in Europe agree that Iran's treatment of its people "is something to be loathed," she said.

Rice, asked twice whether U.S. policy is to work for "regime change" in Iran, didn't answer directly.

Bush never adopted a formal policy toward Iran during his first term. That was the result of a bitter feud between the State Department, which favored engagement with Tehran, and the Pentagon and Vice President Dick Cheney's office, where many officials favored steps to overthrow the government.

Rice said one alarming aspect of Iran's behavior is its backing of Palestinian militants who reject peace talks with Israel.

Rice will visit Israel and the West Bank on Sunday and Monday, a day before a summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and newly elected Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

She said she detected real "momentum" toward returning to formal peace talks.

"We really do have potentially good opportunities now to make progress on the road map (to a peace settlement). The parties themselves have begun making fundamental choices," she said. "It's time for us to sustain the momentum that has been achieved lately."

Bush on Wednesday announced a $350 million aid package for the Palestinians. Rice said some of the funds could go directly to the Palestinian Authority, although she acknowledged concerns in Congress about how the money will be spent.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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