As Iranians choose a new president, the Bush administration is deploring anti-democratic trends in the country.
President Bush said Friday's voting was designed to keep power in the hands of a few rulers "through an electoral process that ignores the basic requirements of democracy."
His secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice (search), said, "The sad thing about Iran is it is moving backwards not forward."
Still, Rice, who is going to the Middle East on Friday, hoped to advance the administration's democracy agenda by speaking out and meeting with reformers several times in other countries and making a policy speech in Cairo.
Rice's immediate goal was to bolster improving relations between Israel and the Palestinians and help smooth the way for Israel's withdrawal from Gaza this summer.
At a State Department news conference, she found bright spots elsewhere in the region, including free elections in Iraq and women winning the right to vote in Kuwait.
On one of her stops, Egypt, Rice intends to press President Hosni Mubarak (search), who already has agreed to contested elections, to create an atmosphere in which candidates "feel that they can freely contend for the presidency."
Reflecting on steps the previously unopposed Mubarak has taken, Rice suggested she would show restraint and encourage the Egyptians to pursue reform "as far as they can possibly go."
"Democracy isn't a single-day event," she said.
In Israel, her first stop, Rice faced difficult talks on the country's sale of military technology to China.
She said China must not be allowed to undertake a "major military escalation" and that Israel "has a responsibility to be sensitive" to U.S. concerns.
In the past, the United States has forced Israel to forgo delivery of some sensitive equipment. The current dispute stems from Israel's sale of unmanned drone aircraft technology.
State-owned Israel Aircraft Industries (search) sold Harpy drones (search) to China in the early 1990s. Harpy parts were shipped to Israel last year for what American defense officials said was an upgrade.
On Iraq, Rice resisted any suggestion the United States should adopt an "exit strategy" for withdrawing American forces from the country amid rising violence. More than 1,700 Americans have died in the war that overthrew President Saddam Hussein (search) and in a postwar insurgency. Polls show growing American dissatisfaction with U.S. engagement.
"What we should look for is a success strategy," Rice said. However, she said security was gradually being turned over to Iraqis and "this is not going to be an American enterprise for the long term."
"We need to have patience," she said.
Friday's election in Iran is to choose a successor to President Mohammad Khatami, who is limited constitutionally to his current second term.
None of the seven candidates, including former two-term president and front-runner Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani (search), was expected to capture at least 50 percent of the vote. That would force a runoff election between the two top vote-getters.
Bush, on the eve of the balloting, said Iranians deserve a genuinely democratic system in which elections are honest and their leaders answer to them.
"To the Iranian people, I say: As you stand for your own liberty, the people of America stand with you," the president said.
Rice, meanwhile, took a skeptical view of trends in Iran, saying the system was more open a few years ago, but many moderate members of parliament are no longer able to run for office.
"When you have a system in which somebody arbitrarily sits and hand-picks who can run and who cannot run, it's a little hard to see that producing an outcome that is going to lead to improvement in the situation," she said.