Rice: Iran's Letter Does Not Address Nuclear Weapons Issue

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dismissed a surprise letter that Iran's president sent to President Bush on Monday, saying it did not seriously address the standoff over Tehran's disputed nuclear program.

In an interview with The Associated Press, the top U.S. diplomat said the letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was 17 or 18 pages long and covered history, philosophy and religion. It was not a diplomatic opening, she said.

"This letter isn't it. This letter is not the place that one would find an opening to engage on the nuclear issue or anything of the sort," Rice said. "It isn't addressing the issues that we're dealing with in a concrete way."

Rice's comments were the most detailed response from the United States to the letter, the first from an Iranian head of state to an American president in 27 years. She would not discuss the contents in detail but made clear that the United States would not change its tack on Iran.

"There's nothing in here that would suggest that we're on any different course than we were before we got the letter," Rice said.

She spoke hours before she was to confer on Iran with other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

The United States pushed for the Security Council review that is now under way, but the body is divided over how hard to press Iran and whether to impose sanctions or other punishment if Tehran will not drop sensitive nuclear activities.

The United States and European allies accuse Iran of secretly pursuing nuclear technology to build a weapon. Iran maintains it is interested only in nuclear power for electricity.

Iran's accusers have been unable to persuade Russia and China, traditional allies and commercial partners of the oil exporter, that tough economic penalties would stop Iran. Russia and China hold veto power in the Security Council.

Rice said the Ahmadinejad letter might be an attempt to change the subject or "throw the international community off course" as the Security Council considers action.

She said the United States would continue to push for a tough Security Council response, although she did not specify what that might be. Meanwhile, the United States is lining up a backup plan with willing nations to impose their own sanctions or penalties if the Security Council fails to act.

"We have to bring some pressure on the Iranians to understand that there will be a cost for their continued defiance of the international system," Rice said.