WASHINGTON - Even as 160,000 U.S. troops try to stabilize Iraq, the United States faces what administration officials say is a series of troubling actions from neighboring Iran.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has accused Iran of allowing senior al-Qaida leaders to operate in that country, a charge that Tehran denies. New information is also emerging about Iran's determination to acquire nuclear weapons. And Tehran is suspected of using Shiite militants in a bid to fill Iraq's leadership vacuum with an Islamic regime similar to its own.
The Bush administration has not disclosed any plan to deal with such potential threats beyond repeating President Bush's pledge last year that as the Iranian people seek to bring freedom to their country, they "will have no better friend" than the United States.
But with Iraq's future uncertain, a new Israeli-Palestinian peace process in its fragile early stages and efforts under way to mend U.S. ties with Europe that were damaged by the Iraq war, Bush appears to want to avoid a new confrontation in the Middle East.
Indeed, the White House sought yesterday to dampen any speculation that it plans to use covert actions to destabilize the Tehran regime.
While criticizing Iran for "insufficient" efforts to crack down on al-Qaida terrorists operating in Iranian territory, Ari Fleischer, Bush's spokesman, said the United States would continue to use direct and indirect channels to persuade Iran to change its policies.
"Our policy on Iran remains that the future of Iran should be determined by the Iranian people, and we continue to press Iran to end its nuclear weapons program," Fleischer said. "We continue to press Iran to cease its harboring of terrorists. And we will continue to work that message to the Iranians through multiple channels, through our channels as well as through international channels."
The United States has had no formal diplomatic relations with Iran for nearly a quarter-century. But officials hold periodic face-to-face meetings with Iranians and exchange messages through officials from other countries.
The White House canceled a recent scheduled meeting with Iranians in Geneva with its envoy Zalmay Khalilzad but did not explain why. Still, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that regular contacts would continue.
"Our policies are well-known, and I'm not aware of any changes in policy" on Iran, Powell said. "We have contacts with them. They will continue."
The administration's efforts to play down the prospect of a confrontation with Iran coincided with signs that Russia is regarding America's worries about Iran's nuclear-weapons development more seriously than in the past and is prepared to help bring international pressure on Tehran.
Russia's foreign ministry said yesterday that it had "serious, unresolved questions in connection with Iran's nuclear research," and it urged Tehran to permit broader access to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Moscow has previously rebuffed Washington's demands that it halt its lucrative sales of atomic-energy technology to Iran. That technology has helped Iran build its nuclear power plant south of Bushehr on the Persian Gulf coast.
Meanwhile, though, an exile opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, described two locations in Iran where it said the Tehran regime had installed equipment to enrich uranium to be used in producing nuclear weapons.
The council's description of the two sites follows its previous disclosure of an enrichment facility at Natanz, which it said contains 1,000 centrifuge machines. The two new sites are intended to be used as substitutes in case the main site at Natanz is damaged, such as by a military attack, the group said.
It said the new sites are in two villages, Lashkar Abad and Ramandeh. The villages, three miles apart, are about 25 miles outside Tehran.
The council is affiliated with the Mujahedeen Khalq, an Iranian rebel group based in Iraq near the Iranian border. U.S. troops forced the Mujahedeen to surrender most of its weapons after the war with Iraq.
Though the Mujahedeen is listed by the State Department as a terrorist group, the council is widely acknowledged to have reliable sources of information inside the country. In the past, it has made important disclosures about Iran's nuclear program.
At a news conference here yesterday, the council gave precise locations of the purported enrichment facilities, described the secrecy demanded of employees and listed eight "front companies" that it said performed clandestine work for the Iranian nuclear program. A spokesman, Alireza Jafarzadeh, asserted that the Iranian regime is aiming to produce a nuclear bomb by 2005.
U.S. officials hope that a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency's board of governors next month will set the stage for an international effort to crack down on Iran's suspected nuclear-weapons program.