Rice Says She 'Can Handle Any Question' from Iran at Conference

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she "can handle any question" Iran's foreign minister might throw at her if the two encounter each other at a regional security conference on Iraq later this week, but cautioned recent exchanges between Iranian and European diplomats over Tehran's renegade nuclear program have not "seen any breakthroughs."

Speaking to reporters aboard her airplane en route to the ministerial-level gatherings, set for tomorrow and Thursday in the Egyptian Red Sea resort town of Sharm el Sheikh, Rice said she would address any overtures from Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki "in terms of American policy," which rejects direct talks with Tehran unless the Islamic Republic verifiably suspends its uranium enrichment program. For now, such talks are the purview of America's European allies, and Secretary Rice expressed a desire to keep it that way.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana has been conducting long-running, if fitful, discussions with Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, and Rice indicated she thinks it "best if the nuclear issue stays in that channel."

"I'm not going [to Egypt] to have a bilateral with the Iranians or a bilateral with the Syrians," Rice said.

Instead, Rice emphasized her efforts will be focused on the stabilization of Iraq, a goal she will pursue in concert with all of the 60 countries and organizations in attendance. Even so, Rice refused to rule out potentially positive interaction with her Iranian counterpart.

"I'm a polite person," she said. "If we encounter each other, I'm certainly planning to be polite and to see what that encounter brings."

When asked what messages she would deliver to the Iranians, Rice recited Washington's familiar litany of grievances against Tehran: Namely, that the regime provides money, training and ordnance to Iraqi insurgents and militias.

On another subject, Rice again made clear she has no intention of complying with a subpoena for her testimony issued last week by the Democrat-controlled House Committee on Government Oversight, which is investigating the Bush administration's pre-war allegation that Saddam Hussein sought to obtain raw uranium, or "yellowcake," from sources in Africa.

President Bush included the claim in his January 2003 State of the Union address, but his aides — including Rice, who was then serving as White House national security adviser — subsequently acknowledged that the claim was not sufficiently well sourced to merit inclusion in that address. A similar claim had been removed from a draft of a speech the president gave in Cincinnati in October 2002 at the CIA's request.

Rice said she had conferred with White House or State Department counsel in response to the subpoena. Rice maintains that the her status as a White House aide during the time in question should shield her from being forced to testify before a congressional committee.

The secretary did, however, respond to a reporter's question about a related allegation raised by former CIA Director George Tenet in his new memoir, "At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA." In the book, which hit stores yesterday amid a barrage of controversy, Tenet disclosed for the first time, and quoting from newly declassified documents, that Rice personally intervened, even before the Cincinnati speech, to remove a similar claim about Saddam Hussein and yellowcake from a draft of remarks that President Bush gave in the Rose Garden on Sept. 26, 2002.

Rice said the CIA did not ask for claim to be removed from the State of the Union address.

"I don't have a recollection of exactly what happened in September [2002]. I do know that in October, [the CIA] asked that it be removed, and in January [2003], they didn't. ... The question of it being removed never came to me for the State of the Union speech.

"I want to be very clear: This is something that appeared in the National Intelligence Estimate. It wasn't out of thin air. ... It was left in through the clearance process, and no one asked that it be removed."

In his book, Tenet admits that his "failure to fully study the speech" himself was one factor leading to inclusion of the yellowcake claim in the speech. Tenet also says his staff, to which he delegated the task of vetting the address, "focused on clearing the speech solely for 'sources and methods,' rather than for substance." But the former CIA director also describes Rice's deputy at the time and eventual successor, Steve Hadley, telling him privately that the White House had also failed to vet the speech properly and would join Tenet in assuming blame for the mishap in public.

Tenet expresses some bitterness that Rice, when questioned by reporters in June 2003, stated, without acknowledging fault on her own part: "If the CIA, the director of Central Intelligence, had said 'Take this out of the speech,' it would have been gone without question."

Flying to Sharm el Sheikh Tuesday night, Rice effectively repeated that same phraseology, saying: "[A]s I've said before, I had no desire to have something in the president's speech that the DCI did not support. So if the clearance process had turned up that there was a problem from the point of view of the DCI, we would most certainly have removed it, as we did in October."

On Wednesday, Rice, some 30 of her fellow foreign ministers and senior officials from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other major financial institutions will formally launch the International Compact with Iraq, an ambitious five-year plan aimed at integrating the war-torn fledgling democracy into the world's established economic systems. The agreement calls for Baghdad to meet a number of economic benchmarks including final passage of an oil revenue-sharing law, market and legal reforms, anti-corruption initiatives in exchange for hundreds of billions of dollars in debt forgiveness, new loans, credit extensions and other economic incentives to be offered by the visiting delegations.

On Thursday, Rice and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will join with top-level diplomats from the member states of the U.N. Security Council, the Group of Eight industrialized nations and the European Union at a gathering called the Expanded Ministerial Conference of the Neighbors of Iraq. Described by U.S. officials as a political counterpart to the economic Compact meeting, the assembly will seek to enlist Iraq's neighbors, regional Mideast states and countries from across the globe in a bid to expedite fuel imports to Iraq, improve its border security, and reduce its refugee problems. Organizers hope the Sharm el Sheikh session will establish the modus operandi for lower-level technical working groups devoted to those three issues.

Rice acknowledged that some Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia will likely use the conferences to voice concerns over what they see as a lack of "urgency" on the part of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take decisive action to protect Sunni citizens in Iraq from Shiite death squads and to work to bring about national reconciliation. Rice has made clear, however, that she expects the Sharm sessions to be "two-way conversations."

"The neighbors are not powerless to help improve the atmosphere for reconciliation, through their efforts on security, and on influencing important players in Iraq to be a part of those efforts," she said.

Briefing reporters on Rice's plane, Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert Kimmitt, who is President Bush's special envoy to the Compact group, hailed the broad multilateral accord as the first Iraq has signed since the 1950s, prior to the ascent to power of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. The economic agreements were forged by Iraqi officials of Sunni, Shia and those of Kurdish descent, Kimmit said, and could contribute "significantly" to an improved political and security atmosphere in the country.

Asked about the pace of anti-corruption reforms, the deputy secretary said: "I do not think there is a culture of corruption in Iraq, but there is too much corruption. It is largely between the well head [in the oil sector] and the central bank and finance coffers."

Although the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service have deployed many officers to Baghdad, including forensic auditors and other technical financial experts, they have not succeeded fully in curbing what Kimmitt called the "illicit finance" that originates from both inside and out of Iraq, and tends, he said, to "aid the insurgency."

Kimmitt declined to say from which countries the outside illicit financing originates.

James Rosen joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999. He currently serves as the chief Washington correspondent and hosts the online show "The Foxhole." His latest book is "A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century" (Crown Forum, October 4, 2016).