Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was back on Capitol Hill today. She was busy defending the administration's outreach to another problem country, Iran. The U.S. is trying direct diplomacy, even as debate rages over whether Iran can really be talked out of its nuclear program. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Secretary Clinton has made several key gestures to Iran already. She made sure that Iranian and U.S. officials met on the sidelines of a conference on Afghanistan. And she agreed to have a top diplomat be a full participant in multilateral nuclear talks with Iran. She told lawmakers that if Iran stonewalls, the U.S. would be in a better position to push for sanctions. Besides, she argued, the last policy didn't work.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): We tried the policy of total isolation for eight years and it did not deter Iran one bit. The nuclear program has continued unabated.

KELEMEN: Obama administration officials say the goal of the negotiations is still to get Iran to stop enriching uranium, which could be used for a nuclear bomb. But the U.S. has shown it's ready to sit down and talk with the Iranians without preconditions. A former national security adviser for the first President Bush, Brent Scowcroft calls that a major change.

Mr. BRENT SCOWCROFT (Former National Security Advisor): 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 be willing to sit down and talk to them. That's always struck me as being an extremely difficult position if you wanted anything to happen.

KELEMEN: Scowcroft calls this new approach very reassuring, though it's 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. One well-known hawk on Iran, former U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, says those talks just buy Iran more time and pressure Israel to consider its own options.

Mr. JOHN BOLTON (Former U.N. Ambassador): 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's ticking quite apart from the six-party talks. I don't know what they're going to do, but if military force is an option, it has to be done soon.

KELEMEN: 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 the book "Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States" says much of what the Obama administration has done so far is to try to create a new atmosphere for negotiations.

Mr. TRITA PARSI (Author, "Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States"): But when you have talks about potential military attacks on Iran coming from Israel, when you have demands for time limits on diplomacy and some people have even suggested as little as 12 weeks, what that does is that it militarizes the atmosphere. And the more the atmosphere get militarized, the more difficult it will be for the Obama administration to be able to pursue its path of diplomacy and be able to be successful at it.

KELEMEN: President Obama this week said that he was appalled by the Iranian president's anti-Israel speech at a U.N. racism conference, but he made clear that won't deter his outreach to Iran. Some experts like Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service don't expect the U.S. to make any more grand gestures before the presidential elections in Iran in June.

Mr. KENNETH KATZMAN (Congressional Research Service): It is no secret in this town. I don't think I'm saying anything that anybody here does not know that the administration and official Washington would like to see a new face in the presidency of Iran.

KELEMEN: He reminded a recent meeting of the Middle East policy council that the nuclear issue is just one of the many problems getting in the way of any U.S.-Iranian detente. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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