Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appealed yesterday to Russia, China and India to support the United States and the European Union in threatening Iran with sanctions over its refusal to give up its nuclear ambitions.

Rice, saying that "we need leadership" in uniting countries to confront Iran, took the unusual step of singling out the three of them one day after lawmakers on Capitol Hill were highly critical of the administration's agreement to sell civilian nuclear technology to India.

Lawmakers were incensed because a senior Indian official, External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh, was reported to have said he opposed referring the Iranian nuclear issue to the U.N. Security Council.

Rice's remarks also reflected an intensive behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign by the United States and the European Union to win the support of the three countries for immediate action against Iran, two senior administration officials said. Rice spoke to her Indian counterpart yesterday -- and her Russian counterpart recently -- and President Bush will raise the issue with the Chinese and Russian presidents next week.

Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns, who last week publicly urged that Iran be referred to the U.N. Security Council, has also made a round of calls, while senior European officials have traveled to Beijing, New Delhi and Moscow to press the case.

Indian officials were reported to be stunned by the reaction in Congress and have indicated to U.S. officials that they are rethinking their position on the issue. But a senior Russian official said yesterday the time was not ripe for threatening Iran with sanctions.

The 35-member governing board of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency is to meet Sept. 19 to discuss Iran's nuclear program. U.S. officials want the agency to refer Tehran to the Security Council because Iran has pulled out of negotiations on the issue with Britain, France and Germany.

A referral can be made with a majority vote, but the Bush administration is seeking as close to unanimity as possible. The key message to Russia, China and India is that "all of us have a responsibility to manage this international system," a senior U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive diplomacy.

He said that if a referral were made, the administration would seek a graduated series of steps, beginning with a statement from the president of the Security Council on Iran's failure to meet its obligations.

Rice, in response to a question at a news conference, said a recent report by the IAEA demonstrated that Iran is not meeting its nuclear obligations. "We have all said that the next step to be expected would be referral to the Security Council," she said. If Iran will not return to negotiations, Rice added, "then not many choices are going to be left to the international community but Security Council referral."

During the talks with the three European nations over giving up sensitive nuclear activities, Iran suspended its nuclear program for eight months. But Iran, which denies it is using a nuclear energy program as a cover for making weapons, said last month it would end the talks and resume uranium conversion work at a key nuclear facility.

While many nations -- including Russia, India and China -- have said they do not want a nuclear-armed Iran, the Bush administration has struggled to convince other countries of the seriousness of the threat. Classified and public estimates suggest that Iran is at least five years away from building a nuclear bomb.

Russia designed and built Iran's nuclear reactor in Bushehr and has signed an agreement to supply it with fuel. China signed a long-term nuclear cooperation agreement with Iran in 1990 that included providing equipment and training.

Yesterday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Yakovenko indicated that his country was unmoved by U.S. pleas for immediate action. "Under the current conditions, Russia finds no reason for the referral of Iran's nuclear dossier to the United Nations Security Council, given the relevant negotiations currently underway at the IAEA," he said.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice singled out Russia, China and India in her comments on confronting Iran on its nuclear ambitions.