WASHINGTON – The rhetoric between Iran and the United States has been hot ever since President Bush placed the Middle Eastern nation in his three-state "axis of evil" during his State of the Union address.
The word from Tehran is that they want to arrest Al Qaeda fighters who may have fled to Iran from Afghanistan, and want the United States to provide the intelligence to do it.
Pentagon and State Department officials don't take this statement as a request for help. They are saying Iran appears to be getting concerned about its international image.
But on the flipside, Iran's defense minister vowed on statewide television that his country would firmly resist any U.S. pressures and warned the United States not to underestimate Tehran, saying it would be a mistake for anyone to take aim at Iran's independence.
Pentagon officials say there is mounting evidence that Iranians have helped Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders escape to Iran through western Afghanistan and there are more reports that Iranians are training and arming Afghan fighters near the city of Herat in order to destabilize the new Afghan government.
While Iran plays a cagey game with the United States, Secretary of State Colin Powell, on Capitol Hill for a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the State Department budget for 2003, found himself defending the president's State of the Union address and his definition of Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an "axis of evil."
"Those who got so distressed about the president's strong statement, ought to not be looking in our direction; they ought to be looking in the direction of regimes such as Iran, which conduct themselves in this way," Powell told the committee.
Iran, Iraq and North Korea are all countries suspected of proliferating weapons of mass destruction. Each government reacted negatively to Bush's characterization of their nation.
Powell said the Iranian government, named a state sponsor of terrorism by the State Department, has only itself to blame for its being cast as evil, despite the fact that some hands in the government don't know what the other hands are doing, particularly in terms of aid to fighters in Afghanistan looking to undermine the new interim government.
"We have to take note of some of the things some parts of the Iranian government are doing in Afghanistan, which are not helpful," he said. "We have to take note of the fact that they are still a state sponsor of terrorism."
Powell also rejected any overture from Iraq toward the United Nations on Iraq's willingness to discuss the sanctions regime that was placed on the nation following the Gulf War.
Faced with Arab complaints that the Iraqi people were victims of the sanctions, the Bush administration has been pushing the U.N. Security Council to impose "smart sanctions" aimed at permitting exports to Iraq of consumer goods and even equipment that might possibly be useful in military programs while tightening the screws on serious smuggling.
Powell told the committee that if Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had nothing to hide he would admit weapons inspectors.
But the reaction of some senators to Powell's comments on Iran may have come as a surprise to the administration, which has received unified support from Congress on it's conduct in the war against terror.
Committee Chairman Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., said he has heard grumbling from European allies that the United States is upsetting the coalition when it starts to go after other nations.
Among some of those nations with concerns: South Korean lawmakers who said the president's speech "throws cold water over the atmosphere of reconciliation and co-operation between North and South [Korea]."
The European Commission has also stated that it does not agree with the policy of grouping the three nations together in a confrontational way.
"It may be understood by the administration but to the say the least it has confused our friends and angered some of our allies," Biden told Powell.
Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., suggested he thought the administration was playing fast and loose with the coalition and the war on terror.
"I was a little concerned at somewhat of a cavalier attitude that I have heard from this administration," Hagel said. "We have to be very careful here [with] what we are doing. When we say things — and set a nation on a course — that makes people uneasy."
Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., also questioned Bush's rhetoric.
Powell responded that other nations besides the three are on the list of nations the United States is watching, but didn't elaborate.
He did say that the designation "does not mean we are not ready to engage in dialogue" with the three nations mentioned by Bush.
"We are ready to talk to North Korea any time they are ready to come back to the table" and without preconditions, he said, adding that North Korea has not responded to U.S. overtures.
Powell, who has traditionally been the administration official to plead with lawmakers to support diplomatic efforts with friends abroad, said the United States is not cavalier about its relations with its allies, but stood behind the president's speech.
Administration sources say, in fact, Powell read the president's speech in advance of the State of the Union and liked it.
Fox News' Bret Baier and The Associated Press contributed to this report.