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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Iran's support for anti-U.S. extremists in Iraq should not go unchallenged, despite U.S. hopes of avoiding confrontation with Tehran, President George W. Bush's pick for deputy secretary of state said on Tuesday.
John Negroponte, the U.S. intelligence chief who was Bush's first ambassador to post-war Iraq, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that an emboldened Iran presented new difficulties for U.S. interests in Iraq, the Gulf region, Lebanon and in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
"If they feel that they can continue with this kind of activity with impunity, that will be harmful to the security of Iraq and to our interests in that country," he added.
Democrats at the hearing warned the Bush administration to avoid war with Iran.
U.S. officials charge that Iran is providing Shi'ites with high-grade explosives capable of tearing through the armor on military vehicles.
Negroponte, who has a 40-year career as a diplomat, is viewed as a heavyweight capable of helping to implement Bush's new strategy for Iraq, while dealing with crises from Iran to North Korea. He would also be involved in Latin America.
The deputy secretary of state job has been open since Robert Zoellick left to join Goldman Sachs last July, creating what lawmakers called the post's longest vacancy since 1972.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers praised Negroponte's record. The panel's Democratic chairman, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, predicted its members would vote quickly to recommend his confirmation by the full Senate.
But a protester was whisked from the hearing room after shouting: "This man is not going to help us get out of Iraq."
Negroponte would rejoin the foreign service as Washington redeploys hundreds of diplomats from developed regions such as Western Europe to hot spots in the developing world to address issues including the Darfur crisis in Sudan.
"The Department of State is a critical component of national security, and I hope the department will be viewed that way in terms of its mission and budget," he said.
His remarks on Iran come at a time when two U.S. aircraft carriers have been stationed in the Gulf as a warning to Iran. Tough talk from Bush and other U.S. officials has stirred speculation of a possible military strike.
"This committee's going to be paying attention, and we do not want to see precipitous actions that have not been thought through, have not been discussed, have not been authorized," Sen. Barack Obama, an Illinois Democrat, told Negroponte.
Biden accused Negroponte of offering misleading remarks when the nominee suggested U.S. and European officials were unified in opposing talks with Iran until Tehran suspends its nuclear enrichment program.
The West describes the program as an effort to develop nuclear arms, but Tehran insists it is aimed solely at electricity generation.
Negroponte said he believed Iraq could still emerge as a viable democracy, despite spiraling sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi'ites.
"Failure in Iraq would be a disaster for Iraqis, for our friends in the region and for the United States," he said.
But repeatedly pressed on the possible advantage of engaging Iran and Syria to help stabilize Iraq, Negroponte reiterated the administration position that Iran must first suspend its nuclear program and Syria crack down on extremists entering the country.
"They know what they need to do," Negroponte said.
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