U.S. in intensive contacts with world countries to face Iran’s nuke enrichment

Biden makes prelude to Iran sanctions, expects support from China

JCS chief takes up Iran developments with Mubarak, region’s leaders

France says doubts Iran’s ability to enrich uranium by 80% soon

Major military offensive on Taleban posts to control vast swathes of opium production

U.S. officials sought to shore up support for a tougher stand against Iran's nuclear program by saying Tehran had left the world little choice and expressing confidence that holdout China would come around to harsher U.N. penalties.

President Barack Obama's senior military adviser called for more time so diplomatic pressure had a chance to succeed and said from Israel, which considers Iran a strategic threat and has hinted it could attack if negotiations failed, that such action could have "unintended consequences" throughout the volatile Middle East.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, on a quick visit to Persian Gulf allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia, said in a speech that Iran has not lived up to its nuclear obligations and has rebuffed U.S. and international efforts to engage in serious talks.

As a result, Clinton told the U.S.-Islamic World Forum that the U.S. and others were working on "new measures" to try to persuade Iran to change its course.

"We do not believe Iran should be a nuclear weapons power," Clinton said at a news conference before her address. She criticized Iran's defiance and said Tehran would not succeed in overcoming international opposition to it nuclear ambitions.

In an exchange with the audience after the speech, Clinton said, "It's time for Iran to be held to account for its activities."

The United States and some of its allies suspect Tehran is using its civilian nuclear program as a cover to build nuclear weapons. Tehran denies the charge and says it only has peaceful intentions.

Obama has said that work to broaden economic sanctions in the U.N. Security Council is moving along quickly, but he hasn't given a specific timeline. China, one of five permanent members of the Security Council, has close economic ties to Iran and can block a resolution by itself.

"We have the support of everyone from Russia to Europe. And I believe we'll get the support of China to continue to impose sanctions on Iran to isolate them, to make it clear that in fact they cannot move forward," U.S. Vice President Joe Biden told NBC's "Meet the Press" from Canada, where he was attending the Olympics.

"We need to work on China a little bit more," added Obama's national security adviser, James Jones. "But China wants to be seen as a responsible global influence in this. On this issue, they can't, they cannot be nonsupportive," he told "Fox News Sunday."

U.S. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Tel Aviv that it was important to let diplomacy and international pressure work. While every situation has limits, he said, "We’re not there yet."

Clinton's stops in Qatar and in Saudi Arabia coincided with a string of diplomatic and military contacts in the Middle East, including Mullen's visits to both Egypt and Israel.

Her top three deputies — James Steinberg, Jacob Lew and William Burns — were expected in the region in coming days.

So was Gen. David Petraeus, chief of U.S. Central Command with responsibility for U.S. military operations across the Middle East.

Their agenda is not focused exclusively on Iran. There also is an American push for closer cooperation in Yemen against al-Qaeda, a move toward bolstering diplomatic relations with Syria and efforts to get Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations back on track.

Clinton's trip follows closely on the Iranian president's claim that his country had produced its first batch of uranium enriched to a higher level. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also insisted on Thursday that Iran had no intention of building nuclear weapons, yet would not be bullied by the West into curtailing its nuclear program — a reference to new U.S. financial penalties imposed a day earlier.

After an overnight flight from Washington, Clinton went directly into a series of high-level meetings in the Qatari capital ahead of her evening speech. Obama addressed the forum by video on Saturday, announcing his appointment of a special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which represents nearly 60 Muslim states across four continents and promotes Muslim solidarity in social and political affairs.

In Cairo, Mullen said after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that Iran was a key challenge to the security of the Middle East. He accused Tehran of spreading its radical influence in Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen and Iraq, and said the U.S. would work through the Security Council to seek new sanctions.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both situated across the Persian Gulf from Iran, are concerned about Iran's nuclear ambitions. They are seen by the Obama administration as an important part of a regional effort to persuade the Iranians that it is in their economic interest to give up their uranium enrichment program as called for in a series of U.N. resolutions that Iran has ignored.

The State Department's top Middle East policy officer, Jeffrey Feltman, who accompanied Clinton, told reporters on the flight from Washington that Iran would figure prominently in Clinton's discussions in both Qatar and in Saudi Arabia.

Feltman said the U.S. believes the two Gulf allies, as well as other countries in the region, can help "sharpen the question for Iran" as to whether it is better off continuing to seek higher-enriched uranium that is closer to weapons grade or halt the program.

"We would expect them (Gulf allies) to use their relationship in ways that can help increase the pressure that Iran feels," Feltman said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military chief has met with Egypt's president at the start of a Middle East tour that Arab media reports say is focused on concerns about Iran's nuclear program.

The predominantly Sunni Arab Middle East has been wary of the growing influence of Shiite Iran, especially because of international suspicions that its nuclear program has a military dimension.

U.S. military officials said last month that the United States was strengthening its missile defenses in Arab nations in the Gulf region to guard against any Iranian missile strike.

Egypt's state Middle East News Agency (MENA) says President Hosni Mubarak met with Adm. Mike Mullen on Sunday. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will travel later in the day to Israel.

In Vienna, the United States, Russia and France on Tuesday said that Iran's escalation of its uranium enrichment further undermines international trust in its nuclear drive.

The three powers sent a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expressing new concern about Iran's actions and signaling new pressure on the Islamic state.

"If Iran goes forward with this escalation, it would raise concerns about Iran's nuclear intentions," said the joint letter, which was obtained by AFP.

"Iran's enrichment of its LEU (low-enriched uranium) stockpile to higher levels is not only unnecessary, but would serve to further undermine the confidence of the international community in Iran's actions," it said.

Iran announced on February 7 that it intended to start producing 20 percent enriched uranium for a medical research reactor, defying world powers who have warned of new UN sanctions unless Tehran halts its nuclear drive.

Western powers suspect Tehran is enriching uranium to make atomic weapons as the material in high purity form can be used in the fissile core of a nuclear bomb.

Iran insists its intentions are peaceful and that it needs 20 percent level uranium to fuel its Tehran research reactor.

The West is trying to convince Iran to accept an IAEA-brokered deal that envisages Tehran being supplied with nuclear fuel for the reactor in exchange for its low-enriched uranium. Iran has so far refused to sign up to the deal.

Iran's announcement that it would enrich on its own and its "subsequent formal notification to the IAEA are wholly unjustified," the three countries wrote in the letter to watchdog chief Yukiya Amano.

It was signed by French envoy Florence Mangin, Russian ambassador Alexander Zmeyevskiy and US ambassador Glyn Davies.

The moves "represent a further step toward a capability to produce highly enriched uranium."

The countries "recognize the need in Iran for medical radioisotopes," the letter continued.

"If Iran does not wish to accept the IAEA offer, we note that these are available on the world market and could be obtained as a responsible, timely and cost effective alternative to the IAEA's proposal.

On the other hand, Marines from Camp Lejeune already in Afghanistan are in the middle of a major offensive against the Taliban in Marjah. They're trying to clear the area of roadside bombs and insurgents.

Maj. Bill Pelletier, a Marine spokesman at Camp Leatherneck, says the battle has been tough.

“There are a lot of IEDs, a lot of encounters with insurgents with small arms fire,” he said. “There's been some stiff resistance in some areas.”

Located in the middle of Helmand Province, experts say Marjah is the heart of an opium growing industry and a haven for the Taliban. It's also been a dangerous place for U.S. forces.

“It's the last place the Taliban felt safe, and it was just the last place to go,” Pelletier said. “where we've seen the pattern of the most Marines being injured and killed is the area outside of Marjah because that's where they wander out from and plant IEDs and attack our forces.”

Camp Lejeune Marines are heavily involved in the fighting. Two battalions from Camp Lejeune deployed to Afghanistan this winter as part of President Barack Obama's troop surge.

“Those battalions that were here before are continuing in their original mission, and if we didn't have these new battalions, we wouldn't have been able to do this mission, plain and simple,” Pelletier said.

Besides clearing the area, the Marines are trying to stabilize it and win over the locals, and for that they need Afghan help. “If we can get elders to come in and have insurgents lay their weapons down, that would be ideal,” Pelletier said.

The New York Times reported that a group of tribal elders agreed to help, assigning 10 local men to assist coalition troops.

Marines say during the operation, they are letting Afghan troops take the lead. They hope that tactic will lead to better engagement with the community.

At least one Marine and one British soldier have been killed in the offensive.