Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice criticized Israel in unusually sharp terms Thursday, warning that its plans to expand an Israeli West Bank settlement was "at odds with American policy" and could threaten progress toward peace with the Palestinians at a critical moment.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Rice said Israeli explanations of plans to add 3,500 housing units to the Maale Adumim settlement east of Jerusalem were "not really a satisfactory response."
"We have noted our concerns to the Israelis" in diplomatic meetings this week with the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, she said.
It was Rice's most pointed criticism of Israel since she assumed her post in January. The administration has staunchly supported the Sharon government since President Bush took office.
Rice's remarks are an emphatic signal that the administration does not want the Sharon government making concessions to Israeli settlers that could threaten the peace process, analysts said.
The Israeli government is under tremendous political pressure from the country's political right as it prepares to withdraw settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip this summer.
Bush and other administration officials have said they oppose expansion of settlements. But Maale Adumim is the first major expansion proposal since peace efforts picked up after the death in November of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and it marks an important test of the administration's intentions, analysts said.
The Israeli Defense Ministry this week confirmed plans for additional units in the settlement, where 30,000 Jewish settlers live. The expansion, about three miles east of Jerusalem, would not begin for years.
But Palestinian officials have complained it would cut off access from the Palestinians' intended capital in East Jerusalem to areas in the West Bank, and have urged U.S. officials to intervene.
Addressing other issues during the interview, Rice said new cooperation between the U.S. and Europe had brought progress in the effort to force Iran to abandon its uranium enrichment activities. But she said Tehran had yet to take "some very clear steps" to end suspicions that it was seeking nuclear weapons.
Rice also said the U.S. wants all countries without nuclear weapons, including Iran, to give up their rights under the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to enrich or reprocess uranium for peaceful purposes, arguing that such activity poses too great a risk for proliferation.
On the issue of Middle East peace, Rice said that despite recent progress, the peace effort remains at a "fragile" stage and that Arafat's successor, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, needs help from outside as he tries to reform the government and bring its security services under control.
She said U.S. officials expected Israel "to be careful about anything" -- including settlements, new laws or the route of a barrier being built to separate Israelis from Palestinians -- that could affect the outcome of peace negotiations.
"It's concerning that this is where it is, and around Jerusalem," Rice said.
"We will continue to note that this [settlement expansion] is at odds with ... American policy. So, full stop," she said.
Rice said the Israelis and Palestinians were on the threshold of a major step toward peace. With a Gaza withdrawal by Israel and reform by the Palestinians, "we will be in a fundamentally different situation in several months, and I think we will be very advanced in terms of where we would be in relation to the road map," she said, referring to a U.S.-backed peace plan that has stalled since its introduction in 2003.
Israeli officials told Assistant Secretary of State David Welch and Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams during talks in Israel this week that "no final decisions have been made" on the West Bank settlement project, said Adam Ereli, deputy State Department spokesman.
Rice's words "laid down a marker for the Sharon government, that Washington doesn't want them making life more difficult for Abbas," said Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Robert Malley, who was a special envoy for Middle East peace during the Clinton administration, said Rice's words were "a little bit more in their face than they have been." But Malley, who is now at the International Crisis Group in Washington, said it remained to be seen whether the administration's tough words would be followed by action.
On Iran, Rice seemed not to share the sense of confidence expressed by some Europeans that Tehran's pledge to temporarily freeze its enrichment program had eased the sense of urgency in the effort to get Tehran to halt the activity permanently.
"It is better than nothing to have a freeze, obviously," she said.
"But the real goal here has to be that the Iranians make a choice that they are not going to engage in activities that heighten suspicion that they're trying to get a nuclear weapon under cover of a civilian nuclear program."
Britain, France and Germany recently won United States backing for their efforts to negotiate a package of incentives for Iran, which could include Western support for its bid to join the World Trade Organization and permission to purchase spare parts for its aging commercial airline fleet.
Tehran says its nuclear program is both peaceful and legal under the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Suspicious of Iran's motives, Washington is demanding that Iran give up all uranium enrichment activity.
It wants Tehran to instead purchase fuel for a future nuclear power program from existing nuclear weapons states.
In her interview, Rice went further, saying the administration was pushing to end the right of all non-nuclear-armed states to enrich uranium, saying it is too easy for a country to hide a weapons program behind such activity.
Bush first raised the idea last year, saying that nuclear supplier nations should refuse to sell either uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing equipment to nations that did not already have nuclear weapons.
Rice said talks on the issue would continue with other countries.
"It is a loophole that countries have used, including, for instance, the North Koreans ... to gain access to civilian nuclear power but to continue activities that were closed and unclear," Rice said.
A prominent Iranian exile made new claims Thursday that Tehran was doing just that.
Alireza Jafarzadeh, who is a former key figure in the National Council of Resistance of Iran, said in a telephone interview that he had received information during the last three days that Iran had just completed a uranium enrichment facility near Tehran that was previously unknown to the international community.
Jafarzadeh said the facility, in a major military complex at Parchin, uses laser technology to enrich uranium.
He said it had been hidden in a part of the complex normally devoted to the production of chemicals under the responsibility of Mohammed-Amin Bassam, a leading Defense Ministry scientist with expertise in molecular laser enrichment.
"How far they've gone or whether they've started enriching I don't know, but the lasers have been installed and the scientists are there," said Jafarzadeh, who heads a Washington think tank, Strategic Policy Consulting.
Times staff writers Sonni Efron and Doyle McManus contributed to this report.