Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday the time has come to send Iran before the U.N. Security Council over its disputed nuclear program, but she seemed to acknowledge that punishment may not be swift or entirely to the United States' liking.

"It has been our belief, and it is that of the Europeans as well and a number of other states, that the time has come for referral" to the powerful United Nations body, Rice said following a meeting with Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini.

Calling the case for referral "very strong," Rice said the United States will push for it at a special meeting of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency early next month.

She would not speculate on what action the Security Council might take, or comment on whether the United States would be satisfied with an outcome less punitive than international economic sanctions.

"The Security Council can then take up the matter at a later time, but the referral absolutely has to be made," Rice said.

Although she stressed the strength of international resolve to stop Iran's march toward possible nuclear weapons, Rice was reminded that even strong military allies may not fully share the United States' preference for sanctions or other harsh repercussions for Tehran.

Fini said he fully agrees that Iran's case should go to the Security Council, which could take a range of steps up to broad trade sanctions or an oil embargo. But Fini began remarks on Iran by noting that Italy is Iran's largest European trading partner, a reminder that economic measures against the oil exporter would have consequences far beyond Iran.

"The Security Council will evaluate the issue, we hope, with flexibility and with political farsightedness," Fini said.

Iran claims its nuclear program is entirely devoted to developing the technology needed to make nuclear energy. The United States claims Iran is hiding a weapons program, or ambitions for one, and that its past deceptions warrant review by the Security Council.