Washington warns Iran that its patience will not last forever

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AMERICA INCREASED the pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme yesterday, telling European allies that Tehran could not delay indefinitely its compliance with international standards, and warning that Washington had not ruled out any option in its dealings with the Iranians.

Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, used a visit to Brussels to back EU diplomatic efforts to bring Iran into line, while giving a firm warning that the patience of the Bush administration was not unlimited.

The UK, France and Germany have led diplomatic efforts to come to a negotiated solution over the Iranian nuclear programme, amid fears that Tehran is developing a military capability.

"The US president never takes his options off the table," warned Ms Rice, though she added: "We believe this is the time for diplomacy." Ms Rice said there was "no deadline" and "no timeline" and said a "diplomatic solution is in our grasp". But she added: "It is obvious that, if Iran cannot be made to live up to its international obligations, the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] statutes suggest Iran would have to be referred to the UN Security Council."

For the time being, the US and the EU have managed to paper over differences, giving the diplomatic process more time, despite suspicions in Washington that Tehran is using its dialogue with European countries as a stalling mechanism.

But, in an interview with US TV, aimed at her domestic audience, Ms Rice took a blunter line, arguing: "We have believed all along that Iran ought to be referred to the Security Council and then a variety of steps are available to the international community."

She added: "They need to hear the discussions that they are in with the Europeans are not going to be a kind of way station where they are allowed to continue their activities - that there's going to be an end to this and that they are going to end up in the Security Council."

In Washington, President George Bush underlined the need for unity, arguing: "The Iranians just need to know that the free world is working together to send a very clear message to Iran: Don't develop a nuclear weapon."

The Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami, reiterated yesterday that no government, present or future, would give up the country's drive to master peaceful nuclear technology, including uranium enrichment.