updated 2/9/2005 5:39:32 PM ET 2005-02-09T22:39:32

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday that Iran could not indefinitely delay accountability for what Washington asserts is its nuclear weapons program, but she said the United States had set no deadline for Tehran to act.

Nearing the end of a European tour that included visits to both old and new members of the expanding NATO, Rice said the United States remained in “close consultations” with its European allies on the issue.

But she warned Tehran that the United States would not accept foot-dragging as officials weighed various diplomatic overtures that European nations have made to resolve the nuclear question. Foreign diplomats said, however, that the United States did not expect those overtures to work and was seeking changes in the leadership of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency to bring it more in sync with Washington’s hard line on Tehran.

At a news conference with NATO officials, Rice told reporters that Iran must live up to its obligations.

“I’m quite clear, and I believe everybody is telling the Iranians that they are going to have to live up to their international obligations,” she said. “It is obvious that if Iran cannot be brought to live up to its international obligations,” then regulations of the U.N. watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, “would indicate that Iran would have to be referred to the U.N. Security Council” for possible sanctions.

“I think the message is there. The Iranians need to get that message,” she said, adding that Tehran should know that “there are other steps” the international community can take.

‘Security Council referral looms’
In remarks earlier in an interview with Fox News that was released Wednesday, Rice said, “Iranians need to hear that if they are unwilling to take the deal, really, that the Europeans are giving ... then the Security Council referral looms.”

Asked at the news conference Wednesday how long the diplomatic efforts should continue, Rice replied: “We’ve set no deadline, no timeline. The Iranians know what they need to do.”

Britain, France and Germany are in talks with the Iranian government, but the United States kept its distance from that effort, and the Europeans have been reluctant to take the matter to the United Nations before making further efforts at a deal.

Rice said the United States was in close consultations with the Europeans “about how it’s going, about whether progress is being made ... and we’ll just monitor and continue those discussions. ... We are in very close consultation.”

In the Fox interview, Rice said, “We have believed all along that Iran ought to be referred to the Security Council, and then a variety of steps are available to the international community.” The interview was taped in Paris and released after her arrival here.

“They need to hear that the discussions that they are in with the Europeans are not going to be a kind of way station where they are allowed to continue their activities, that there’s going to be an end to this and that they are going to end up in the Security Council,” she said.

U.S. trying to oust nuclear agency head
President Bush reinforced Rice’s message Wednesday, saying at a briefing with Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski at the White House that “the Iranians just need to know that the free world is working together to send a very clear message: Don’t develop a nuclear weapon.”

Bush added that he was looking “forward to going to Europe to continue to discuss this issue with our allies.” But diplomats and other European officials in Vienna, Austria, where the IAEA is based, told The Associated Press that Washington expected the European diplomatic efforts to fail and planned to increase pressure on Tehran when the IAEA meets Feb. 28.

At the same time, they said, U.S. representatives were lobbying allies in a bid to oust Mohammed ElBaradei as head of the agency, perhaps as early as the end of the month. It remained unclear whether Washington could muster the 12 votes needed among the 35-nation IAEA board for a vote of non-confidence.

No U.S. comment was available on Washington’s strategy for the coming IAEA board of governors meeting, but Washington is known to consider ElBaradei too soft on the Tehran leadership.

With the agency spearheading international attempts to squelch nuclear proliferation, its director is a key position for Bush administration officials, who tried but failed to oust ElBaradei late last year. The Americans were unable to find anyone to challenge him for a third term by the deadline of Dec. 31, shortly after calling on him to step down with his second term completed.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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