Rice says Iran letter is not an opening to solve nuclear crisis

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NEW YORK (AP) – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dismissed a surprise letter that Iran’s president sent to President Bush on Monday, saying it did not seriously address the standoff over Tehran’s disputed nuclear program.

In an interview with The Associated Press, the top U.S. diplomat said the letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was 17 or 18 pages long and covered history, philosophy and religion. It was not a diplomatic opening, she said.

“This letter isn’t it. This letter is not the place that one would find an opening to engage on the nuclear issue or anything of the sort,” Rice said. “It isn’t addressing the issues that we’re dealing with in a concrete way.”

Rice’s comments were the most detailed response from the United States to the letter, the first from an Iranian head of state to an American president in 27 years. She would not discuss the contents in detail but made clear that the United States would not change its tack on Iran.

“There’s nothing in here that would suggest that we’re on any different course than we were before we got the letter,” Rice said.

She spoke hours before she was to confer on Iran with other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

The United States pushed for the Security Council review that is now under way, but the body is divided over how hard to press Iran and whether to impose sanctions or other punishment if Tehran will not drop sensitive nuclear activities.

The United States and European allies accuse Iran of secretly pursuing nuclear technology to build a weapon. Iran maintains it is interested only in nuclear power for electricity.

Iran’s accusers have been unable to persuade Russia and China, traditional allies and commercial partners of oil-exporter Iran, that tough economic penalties would be effective. Russia and China hold veto power in the Security Council.

Rice said the Ahmadinejad letter might be an attempt to change the subject or “throw the international community off course” as the Security Council considers action.

She said the United States would continue to push for a tough Security Council response, although she did not specify what that might be. Meanwhile, the United States is lining up a backup plan with willing nations to impose their own sanctions or penalties if the Security Council fails to act.

“We have to bring some pressure on the Iranians to understand that there will be a cost for their continued defiance of the international system,” Rice said.

She said Vice President Dick Cheney’s rebuke of Russia last week over its energy policies and retrenchment on democracy do not complicate her diplomatic efforts with Moscow over Iran. Moscow has reacted negatively.

“The Russians from time to time say things about our policies that we don’t particularly like either, and we manage to work on issues that are of common interest,” Rice said.

In a wide-ranging interview, Rice also said Iraq’s new political leaders recognize they must move swiftly on looming problems including sectarian violence in the streets and divisions and corruption within the key Interior ministry that oversees police and security.

She offered no timetable for U.S. military withdrawals from Iraq or for an end to the anti-U.S. insurgency.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, she said she sees no sign that the new Hamas leadership in the Palestinian territories is bowing to international pressure to renounce violence or accept Israel. She said the United States will soon propose new medical relief for the impoverished Palestinian people.

On Afghanistan, Rice said drug production remains a major problem. But she said she was optimistic about progress there more than four years after a U.S.-led invasion toppled the Islamic Taliban government.

“I think the trends in Afghanistan are very, very positive,” Rice said. “This is a tough job and there will be some ups and downs.”

Afghanistan supplies nearly 90 percent of the world’s opium and heroin, and some of the profits from the illicit business are believed to go to the Taliban.

The government, backed by hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. and British money, has launched a campaign to eradicate poppies in many areas – a move that is believed to have prompted armed resistance from traffickers.

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