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Rice: No Illusions About Mideast Democracy

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave her strongest rebuke yet on Sunday to the renewed hardline Islamic leadership of Iran, saying that "no civilized nation" can call for the annihilation of another.

Rice was referring to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's remark last month that Israel is a "disgraceful blot" that should be "wiped off the map." Her remarks drew applause from politicians, diplomats and others gathered for a U.S.-Israeli symposium.

"No civilized nation should have a leader who wishes or hopes or desires or considers it a matter of policy to express that ... some another country should be pushed into the sea," Rice said, speaking slowly and sternly. "It is unacceptable in the international system."

Speaking a day after part of her agenda for political openness in the Middle East ran into heavy weather, Rice also said the Bush administration is under no illusions about the difficulty of spreading democracy in the region.

"We are not naive about the pace, or difficulty, of democratic change," Rice said. "but we know that the longing for democratic change is deep and urgently felt."

Profound change is underway in the Middle East, Rice said near the close of a diplomatic trip that began with encouragement for incipient democracy in post-Saddam Iraq and will end Monday with condolences for nearly 60 people killed in a terrorist bombing last week in Jordan.

"We have hope for peace today because people no longer accept that despotism is the eternal political condition of the Middle East," Rice said.

The hard-liner Ahmadinejad was the surprise winner in June elections in Iran, and he immediately set about undoing the reforms and international outreach of the previous moderate-leaning government.

"When we look at a country like Iran we see an educated and sophisticated people who are the bearers of a great civilization," Rice said. "And we also see that as Iran's government has grown more divorced from the will of its citizens it has become more threatening, not less threatening."

The United States and European nations are at odds with Iran over the future of its nuclear program, with a key meeting of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency approaching on Nov. 24.

The head of Iran's nuclear agency ruled out a compromise proposal to enrich uranium for his country's nuclear program in Russia, saying Saturday the process must be done in Iran.

The United States and European negotiators reportedly were willing to accept the compromise to allow Iran to move ahead with its nuclear program while ensuring it does not produce atomic bombs. Enrichment can produce material either for a bomb or for nuclear reactor fuel.

The United States claims Iran is hiding nuclear weapons ambitions behind its drive to develop nuclear power for electricity. Iran denies it.

In Bahrain on Saturday, a U.S.-backed summit meant to promote political freedom and economic change in the Middle East ended without a planned agreement on democratic principles.

The declaration was shelved after Egypt insisted on language that would have given Arab governments greater control over which democracy groups receive money from a new fund.

President Bush has made the push for democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere an organizing principle for his second term. Although they do not claim direct credit, Rice and other Bush advisers point with approval at swift changes from corrupt or autocratic governments in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rice gave cautious encouragement to lesser changes and reforms in Saudi Arabia and Egypt in Sunday's address.

Rice met with Saudi leaders earlier Sunday in Jiddah, and said although Saudi Arabia can do more to root out the sources of terror financing, the two countries share commitment to fight terrorism.

She also renewed criticism of Syria for dragging its feet in cooperating with a U.N. investigation into the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut last February. Hariri was trying to pull his country away from Syrian domination, and his death launched street protests against Syria's three-decade political and military control in Lebanon.

"We have to say the Syrians have not yet cooperated," Rice said, dismissing Syrian complaints about the probe and its plans to perform its own investigation.

"That's just not going to cut it," she said.