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Rice wins support from 2 key European allies for new sanctions against Iran

    BRUSSELS, Belgium — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice won support Thursday on Iran from two key European allies, France and Germany, whose leaders urged continued pressure on Tehran because of its nuclear program, saying the country remains a danger.
    German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy urged a two-pronged approach of pressure and negotiations with Iran.
    ‘‘I think we are in a process and that Iran continues to pose a danger,’’ Merkel said in Paris at a joint news conference with Sarkozy in response to a new U.S. intelligence estimate indicating Iran stopped nuclear weapons development in 2003.
    Merkel did not specifically express support for a new U.N. sanctions resolution against Iran but said: ‘‘We and our partners would like to continue with the U.N. process.’’
    Sarkozy has continued to support the U.S.-led push for sanctions. ‘‘The threat exists,’’ he said.
    Rice, meanwhile, began talks in Brussels on Thursday with European and Russian officials to urge greater international pressure on Iran to halt uranium enrichment and answer questions about its nuclear programs.
    The talks are Rice’s first face-to-face sessions with world powers now considering new U.N. sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program since the National Intelligence Estimate was released Monday.
    ‘‘I don’t see that the NIE changes the course that we’re on,’’ Rice told reporters aboard her plane as she flew to Belgium for a conference of NATO foreign ministers and talks between the alliance and former Cold War foe Russia, which, along with China, has been particularly resistant to new sanctions.
    ‘‘In fact, I would think given the assessment that Iran is indeed susceptible to coordinated international pressure that (this) is the right approach,’’ she said, referring to the NIE finding that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 due to intense diplomatic activity.
    ‘‘The point that I’m emphasizing to people is that it was international pressure that got the Iranians to halt their program,’’ she said. ‘‘This suggests that you ought to keep up that international pressure.’’
    Rice was to meet separately with the foreign ministers of Italy, Belgium and Britain, as well as European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.
    Iran will be a major topic in all of those discussions as well as in Rice’s Friday talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, perhaps the figure most suspicious of the U.S. policy on Iran, and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose government appears conflicted on the matter.
    Rice also will see Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Friday. Israeli officials say their intelligence forces believe Iran is still working aggressively to build nuclear arms, despite the new U.S. conclusion about Iran. The Islamic regime in Tehran is strongly opposed to Israel’s existence and frequently boasts of its ability to strike the Jewish state with long-range missiles.
    Bush administration officials have conceded that their abrupt abandonment of that point will likely hurt their efforts to impose more sanctions on Iran to increase pressure for it to cease uranium enrichment and reprocessing, which could produce the ingredients for a bomb.
    ‘‘Perhaps, but it wasn’t easy to begin with,’’ U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney said Wednesday in an interview with Politico.com, an online political magazine.
    Discussions on that point, between the U.S. and the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — Britain, France, Russia and China — plus Germany in the so-called ‘‘P5 plus one’’ grouping are now on hold pending consideration of the new intelligence.
    Whatever assessments are made, Rice said she would impress on her counterparts the need for Iran to disclose the nature of its alleged secret nuclear weapons program prior to 2003, returning to a theme addressed by U.S. President George W. Bush.
    ‘‘We should also start to look at ways for Iran to account for what was happening before 2003,’’ she said, without elaboration on what type of mechanism she had in mind, if any.
    Bush on Wednesday demanded that Tehran detail its previous program to develop nuclear weapons — ‘‘which the Iranian regime has yet to acknowledge.’’
    ‘‘The Iranians have a strategic choice to make,’’ he said in the U.S. state of Nebraska.
    Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proclaimed the new assessment ‘‘a declaration of victory for the Iranian nation against the world powers over the nuclear issue.’’
    Rice scoffed at those remarks but has been contacting allies to defend the Bush administration’s surprise shift on Iran and to explain it to those in the international community who have been calling for diplomacy.
    ‘‘It opens a window of opportunity for Iran now, because Iran obviously has been somewhat vindicated in saying that they have not been working on a weapons program, at least for the past few years,’’ U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei said.

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