Obama Administration Defends Outreach To Iran

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday defended the Obama administration's outreach to Iran and said the Bush administration's attempts to isolate Tehran did not work. The U.S. is trying direct diplomacy, though experts are divided over whether Iran can really be talked out of pursuing its nuclear program.

"We tried the policy of total isolation for eight years, and it did not deter Iran one bit. The nuclear program has continued unabated," she told a House appropriations subcommittee Thursday.

Clinton has made several significant gestures to Iran. She made sure that Iranian and U.S. officials met on the sidelines of a recent multinational conference on Afghanistan and agreed to have a top diplomat be a full participant in multilateral nuclear talks with Iran.

'Sea Change' In U.S. Position

Obama administration officials say the goal of negotiations is to get Iran to stop enriching uranium, which could be used for a nuclear bomb. But the U.S. has shown it is ready to sit down and talk with the Iranians without preconditions.

A former national security adviser for President George H.W. Bush, Brent Scowcroft, calls that a major change.

"I think there's a sea change in the sense that the United States is abandoning the position that Iran has to do most of what we want before we will sit down and talk to them. That has always struck me as being an extremely difficult position to be in if you want anything to happen," he says.

In a separate appearance before a congressional panel Wednesday, Clinton indicated that the administration's conciliatory policy toward Iran is not open-ended. If efforts to persuade Tehran fail, the U.S. would push for tighter sanctions, she said.

Scowcroft says the new administration's approach on Iran is not reassuring to everyone. Israel is worried that the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany may end up negotiating a deal that allows Iran to keep some parts of its nuclear program active.

Former U.S. ambassador John Bolton, a well-known hawk on Iran, says talks will just buy more time for Iran to pursue its nuclear ambitions and pressure Israel to consider its own options.

"The military option is a declining option because of Iran's increased defenses and further dispersion of their program, so the Israelis have a clock that is ticking quite apart from the six-party talks," Bolton says. "I don't know what they are going to do, but if military force is an option, it has to be done soon."

Addressing The Military Threat From Israel

But others say the Obama administration needs to help quiet all the talk of a potential Israeli military strike on Iran.

Trita Parsi, author of Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S., says much of what the Obama administration has done so far is seek to create a new atmosphere for negotiations.

"But when you have talks of a potential military attack on Iran coming from Israel, when you have demands for time limits on diplomacy — and some have suggested as little as 12 weeks — what that does is militarizes the atmosphere, and it will make it more difficult for Obama to be able to pursue diplomacy and to be able to be successful at it," Parsi says.

President Obama said this week he was appalled by the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad 's anti-Israel speech at a U.N. racism conference. But Obama made clear that the comments won't deter his outreach to Iran.

But don't expect the U.S. to make any more grand gestures before Iran's presidential elections in June, says Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East specialist with the Congressional Research Service.

"It is no secret in this town. I don't think I'm saying anything that anyone here does not know, that the administration and official Washington would like to see a new face in the presidency of Iran," Katzman says, noting that the nuclear issue is just one of many problems blocking a U.S.-Iranian detente.

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