U.S. officials cool on Iran's hot responseWASHINGTON Top U.S. officials responded with aplomb on Sunday to developments in the Middle East, saying that Tehran's heated reply to the effort to persuade Iran to halt nuclear work was simply part of negotiations, and that a new Syrian plan to withdraw from Lebanon had "positive elements."
At a time of ferment in the region being encouraged by the White House, the new U.S. national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, described the Syrian withdrawal plan as "good news," while saying he wanted to hear more details and to watch Syrian actions.
Hadley and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also said that the issue of how to deal with Hezbollah, the militant group that brought half a million pro-Syrian demonstrators to the streets of Beirut last week, but which Washington calls a terrorist organization, could be dealt with after elections set for May.
"Very often," Rice said on ABC television, "elections themselves have a changing impact on people and on the balance of forces."
But she said that a democratic society could not coexist with groups "committed to violence outside of that border."
Both officials seemed untroubled by a fierce Iranian response to the new U.S.-European plan to influence its nuclear policy. The parties agreed to offer incentives - in trade, security, diplomacy and technology - to Tehran for dropping any nuclear weapons work, but to take the matter to the United Nations if Iran persists.
In Tehran, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hamid Reza Asefi, said bluntly Saturday that Iran was determined to develop peaceful nuclear technology and that "no pressure, intimidation or threat can make Iran give up its right."
But Rice suggested that Iran had been rattled by its inability to pit the United States against Europe.
"What we've forged with Europe is a common front, a common approach to dealing with Iran that says Iran must not develop a nuclear weapon," she said. "I'm sure it makes the Iranians uncomfortable."
Offsetting the comment from the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hadley said, was one from President Mohammad Khatami of Iran, who said Tehran was "willing to work with the world to give more security that Iran is not moving toward construction of nuclear weapons."
Rice, who appeared on three morning political programs, was pressed repeatedly about how long Iran should be given to accept U.S.-European proposals.
"We don't have a timeline," she said on ABC, adding that Tehran would be wise to act "sooner rather than later."
She was also asked about a report in The Sunday Times of London that said that Israel had developed secret plans to attack Iran if the U.S.-European efforts failed.
The newspaper said that American officials had "indicated provisionally that they would not stand in Israel's way if all international efforts to halt Iranian nuclear projects failed."
"Well," Rice replied, "the United States administration is not going to authorize anything here."
"Obviously, the president of the United States always has his options open" - a phrase generally understood to include military action - "but we really do believe that this can be resolved diplomatically."
"It really is now up to the Iranians to do what they need to do," Rice said.
The United States agreed last week to drop its opposition to European plans to use incentives in the talks with Tehran that could include help on membership in the World Trade Organization and sales of civilian aircraft parts.
Hadley, the national security adviser, declined to describe this as a concession to a government that President George W. Bush has called the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism.
"What we are doing is removing some objections to something the Europeans are doing," Hadley said on Fox television. "But I do not think that the Iranian regime can take much comfort," because the Europeans were toughening their own position.
Rice, who was about to leave on her first major trip to Asia as secretary of state - to South Asia, then to Japan, South Korea and China - urged both Beijing and Taipei to step back from recent moves that have heightened tensions.
China is expected to pass legislation on Monday stipulating that any change in the Taiwanese Constitution that would move it closer to formal independence could be a trigger for military action.
"We have said to both parties that it is not helpful to have unilateral steps that raise tensions," Rice said.
Asked if that included the Chinese legislation, she said, "Oh, clearly it raises tensions."
Rice would not be drawn by an ABC interviewer into speculating on whether China, as its economic might grows, could become a growing military threat.
"They are a rising force in international politics," she said, "and there are both healthy aspects and troubling aspects to that."
She said China had played a useful role in fighting terrorism and in cooperating in the six-party talks on North Korean efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, an important issue of her visit.
Rice also declined to be drawn into much of a discussion of her own political future. The Washington Times newspaper said on Saturday that Rice, in an interview, had repeatedly declined to rule out speculation that she might run for president in 2008.
On Sunday she laughingly noted that she had never run for any office - not even high school class president - and said, "I don't have any desire to run for president."
But tentative recent steps toward Middle Eastern democracy have drawn praise in Washington even from some Democrats, and Rice has received considerable credit.
"The secretary's doing a first-rate job," said Senator Joseph Biden, Democrat of Delaware, on CBS television. "If we stay this course we've got a shot of literally affecting the course of history."