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Rice faces tough questioning on Iran, Iraq, Hamas

The Bush administration will "walk a fine line" in seeking international sanctions against Iran's Islamic government over its disputed nuclear program, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday.

The Bush administration's top diplomat detailed a two-track approach to Iran - concerted international pressure to deter Tehran from building a bomb and a newly robust attempt to seed democratic change inside the country with $75-million for broadcasts and aid to dissidents.

Even so, Rice ran into tough questions from lawmakers of both parties on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee over Iran, Iraq and the Palestinians, underscoring congressional worries about administration policies throughout the Middle East.

"I don't see, Madame Secretary, how things are getting better. I think things are getting worse. I think they're getting worse in Iraq. I think they're getting worse in Iran," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.

"Opportunities missed," said Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, referring to the Mideast peace process and the recent Palestinian election triumph of Hamas, the militant group. "Now we have a very, very disastrous situation of a terrorist organization winning elections."

Rice said she agrees it's a difficult moment for the peace process but said, "I don't think the United States of America is responsible for the election of Hamas."

On Iraq, the panel's top Democrat disagreed with Rice's optimism about political unity among Iraq's squabbling ethnic groups.

"I'm not hopeful," Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., told Rice. "The policy seems not to be succeeding."

Rice gave the most detailed glimpse to date of U.S. options and objectives on Iran, now that the U.N. Security Council is set to consider the case against its nuclear effort. She called the country the single greatest challenge faced by the United States, because of its alleged nuclear ambitions and role as a terrorist patron state.

Under questioning from both Democratic and Republican senators about Bush administration policies in Middle East trouble spots, Rice said the countries trying to keep Iran from building a bomb had divergent views over what to do next.

"It's not easy. There is not a common view on when or how sanctions ought to be taken," Rice said, "but the Iranian regime is giving the world a very good set of reasons to take serious measures."

Rice said the United States is examining the ramifications of "the full range of potential sanctions" the Security Council could levy, but signaled that any initial steps will be small.

There is hesitancy among U.N. Security Council members for broad economic sanctions like those imposed on Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Many countries are concerned that those measures could take a greater toll on ordinary citizens than on their government, and might backfire by prompting Tehran to retaliate by boosting its oil prices.

"We want to look at the effect on the international community as a whole of any actions that we take, economies and the like," Rice said. "I think you will see us trying to walk a fine line in what actions we take."

The United States has long sought Security Council review for Iran, which says its nuclear program is intended only to produce electricity. The United States and European allies contend Iran is bent on acquiring technology that could be used to build a bomb.