By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 27, 2006 5:33 PM
SOFIA, Bulgaria, April 27 -- A day before a deadline for Iran to suspend controversial nuclear work, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sought Thursday to allay fears here and in other European countries that the United States plans to use bases in Europe to attack Iran.
"I know this is on people's minds," Rice said at a news conference after attending a meeting of NATO foreign ministers. While all options remain on the table, she said, "we are committed to a diplomatic course that should, with enough unity and with enough strength and with enough common purpose, make it possible to convince the Iranian government" to change its course.
Rice is expected to sign an agreement Friday with the Bulgarian government to establish three military bases in its territory, part of a plan to shift U.S. troops from large bases in central Europe to smaller ones closer to the Middle East. Nearly 5,000 protesters marched on the U.S. embassy Thursday to denounce the agreement. Opinion surveys have found that a majority of the population here opposes the deal.
Rice confronted the same concerns earlier in the week when she visited Greece and Turkey, where the media buzzed with anticipation that she would ask to use local facilities for an attack.
"Let me go right to the crux of the question," Rice said in Greece. "The United States of America understands and believes that Iran is not Iraq. The Iraq circumstances had a special character going back for 12 years of suspended hostilities after a war of aggression which Saddam Hussein himself launched."
The United Nations Security Council gave Iran until Friday to stop uranium enrichment activities. The International Atomic Energy Agency is set to report that same day that Iran has failed to respond to the Security Council call, and the Bush administration plans to follow up with a diplomatic push for a resolution that could lead to sanctions against the Islamic republic.
But with permanent members Russia and China signaling strong reservations, U.S. officials acknowledge they face an uphill battle.
Rice and 31 of her colleagues from NATO and the European Union discussed Iran and the pending deadline during a three-hour dinner that also touched on the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region, Iraq and the Hamas-led government in the Palestinian territories, U.S. officials said. No aides were present, and U.S. officials declined to talk about the discussion in detail, except to say it was free-wheeling and informal.
In an echo of administration statements before the invasion of Iraq, Rice said the credibility of the Security Council is at stake because Iran's failure to comply "cannot be cost-free."
"It goes without saying that the United States believes and others believe that, in order to be credible, the U.N. Security Council, of course, has to act," Rice told reporters. "The Security Council is the primary and most important institution for the maintenance of peace and stability and security and it cannot have its word and its will simply ignored by a member state."