TEHRAN, Iran — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Thursday said Iran is probably the No. 1 challenge to the United States.
Rice, who wants the Security Council this month to start taking action against Iran that could lead to sanctions, also repeated concerns that Washington believes Tehran supports anti-Israel militants and meddles in neighboring Iraq.
“We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran, whose policies are directed at developing a Middle East that would be 180 degrees different than the Middle East we would like to see developed,” Rice said at a Senate hearing.
“This is a country determined to develop a nuclear weapon ... and is the central bank for terrorism,” she added.
Iran said earlier Thursday that it won’t be bullied into abandoning its nuclear program, rejecting its referral to the Security Council as “unjust.”
“The people of Iran will not accept coercion and unjust decisions by international organizations,” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying by Iranian television during a visit to Iran’s western province of Lorestan. “Enemies cannot force the Iranian people to relinquish their rights.”
“The era of bullying and brutality is over,” he added.
Ahmadinejad also warned that the West will suffer more than his country if it tries to stop Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, vowing to press ahead with the program as the confrontation moved into the U.N. Security Council.
Tehran increasingly bellicose
Ahmadinejad’s comments came as Tehran struck an increasingly threatening tone, with the top Iranian delegate to the U.N. atomic watchdog agency warning a day earlier that the United States will face “harm and pain” if the Security Council becomes involved.
“They know that they are not capable of causing the least harm to Iranian people,” Ahmadinejad said during a visit to Iran’s western province of Lorestan, according to the ISNA news agency. “They will suffer more.”
Ahmadinejad did not elaborate. Some diplomats saw the comments as a veiled threat to use oil as a weapon, though Iran’s oil minister ruled out any decrease in production. Iran also has leverage with extremist groups in the Middle East that could harm U.S. interests.
‘Harm and pain’
The statements came a day after Iran threatened the United States with “harm and pain” as the 35-nation board of the International Atomic Energy Agency ended a three-day meeting in Vienna, Austria, over Iran’s nuclear program, formally opening the path to Security Council action.
The Security Council, whose action could range from a mild statement urging compliance to sanctions or even military measures, was expected to debate the issue next week.
The IAEA had put the council on alert over the issue last month but delayed any action to give more time for diplomacy under an agreement by the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain — the five permanent Security Council members that wield veto power.
The five countries met in New York on Wednesday to discuss a first response to the crisis.
Washington is seeking harsh measures against Iran, but economic and political sanctions are unlikely because of opposition from Russia and China, which have strategic and commercial ties with Tehran.
U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns suggested Wednesday that America would push for sanctions if appeals and demands failed.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov indicated that Moscow would not support sanctions and he ruled out military action.
Wednesday’s IAEA meeting featured an intense debate over a critical report on Iran’s nuclear program. Soon after the meeting ended, IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said he would send the report to the Security Council within 24 hours.
A continuation of diplomacy?
ElBaradei, however, cast Security Council involvement as a continuation of diplomacy with Iran. He suggested Washington might need to talk to Iran directly if negotiations reach the stage of focusing on security guarantees to Tehran in exchange for concessions on its nuclear program.
ElBaradei’s report accused Iran of withholding information, possessing plans linked to nuclear weapons and refusing to freeze uranium enrichment — a possible pathway to nuclear arms.
Tehran’s newspapers published news of the decision on their front pages Thursday. The official Persian-language daily Iran called the move “a message of weakness and failure” by the nuclear agency.
Iran claims its nuclear program is peaceful and only aimed at generating electricity, but an increasing number of countries have come to share the U.S. view that Tehran is seeking to develop atomic weapons.
The U.S. and its European allies want Iran to give up uranium enrichment, a technology that can be used to produce nuclear fuel or materials for a nuclear bomb.
Iran has rejected the demand, saying it will never give up its right under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to enrich uranium and produce nuclear fuel.
MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.