Rice talks tough on Iran to Jews

By Ron Kampeas, JTA

WASHINGTON — Condoleezza Rice used a meeting with Jewish leaders this week tomake one of her toughest statements to date on the use of force to contain Iran’s nuclear program.

“No options are off the table, no one is ready for a nuclear Iran, the Iranians must understand that, ” the U.S. secretary of state said Wednesday, according to notes from three people attending the meeting at the State Department. “Accomplishing that goal is not in their interests. The United States and this president do not have a

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credibility issue when it comes to the use of force. “

The reference, made at a private forum with eight Jewish organizational leaders, appeared to be to the U.S. decision in 2003 to lead an invasion of Iraq, despite international opposition.

Comparing the Iraq war and what might happen to Iran is rare for administration officials, who usually go out of their way to say the cases are vastly different because Iran poses far more serious military challenges than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq did.

On Tuesday, Iran began enriching uranium, a necessary step in the making of a nuclear bomb, although Iran insists its program is for peaceful purposes. Iran is accelerating its nuclear program and cutting off nuclear inspectors in the wake of a decision this month by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions.

Rice made it clear that any decision to use force was a long way off, and went out of her way to say the United States is considering its actions with due deliberation.

According to participants, she said she opposed sanctions that would harm the Iranian people, such as an oil embargo, or dropping Iran’s soccer team from this year’s World Cup. Instead, she suggested, one step might be to starve Iran of foreign currency, limiting its ability to withstand the economic blow Western sanctions would bring.

The meeting brought together leaders of Jewish organizations that have been most outspoken about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Western experts say Iran might be at least 10 years away from a bomb, but some Israelis believethe Islamic republic could have a bomb by the end of next year.

Representatives at the meeting included two leaders of the American Jewish Committee; two leaders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby; and leaders of the Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs, the United Jewish Communities, the Republican Jewish Coalition and B’nai B’rith International. The American Jewish Congress was also invited, but was unable to send a representative.

Many Jewish organizational leaders were in Israel this week on a mission of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The meeting between Rice and the Jewish leaders had been in the works since January because of concerns ahead of that month’s Palestinian legislative elections, according to administration sources. The invitations were sent out last week, after the terrorist group Hamas won a surprise landslide majority in the elections.

Rice took time out of a busy day testifying before the U.S. Congress about her department’s budget requests. The Bush administration wants $85 million to assist opponents to the Islamists now ruling Iran.

In her testimony to the Senate, she referred to Iran’s decision to enrich uranium, but maintained the administration’s standard line — softer, more ambiguous and stressing diplomacy without mentioning force.

“The more Iran does the kinds of things that it did today in starting enrichment and reprocessing and therefore defying the international community, the more, I think, you will see people come together around a set of consequences for Iran’s behavior, ” she told senators. “We are in very intense discussions with our colleagues about what that menu might look like, about how that menu might play out over time. I don’t want to get ahead of thediplomacy but we are in those discussions. “

Speaking with the Jewish leaders, Rice reiterated that the U.S. government would not deal with a Hamas government until it renounces violence and recognizes Israel’s right to exist. She said U.S. assistance would continue through Feb. 18, when Hamas is slated to officially assume its majority in parliament but “the clock would start ticking” once Hamas establishes a government. That could take weeks.

Rice also said U.S.-Palestinian security cooperation posed a conundrum: on the one hand, the Bush administration wanted no ties at all with a Hamas-led government; on the other, pulling out from a program that provides training and non-lethal equipment to Palestinian security forces now would undermine the security gains achieved so far.

Israeli officials have said security improvements under the previous Fatah-led government have helped stem terrorist attacks.