By trying to talk Iran out of its nuclear program, the U.S. is in a better position to organize tougher international sanctions in the event that diplomacy fails, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday.
"We actually believe that by following the diplomatic path we are on, we gain credibility and influence with a number of nations who would have to participate in order to make the sanctions regime as tight and as crippling as we would want it to be," Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Iran denies that its nuclear program is intended to develop weapons.
The official Iranian news agency IRNA reported Wednesday that Iran welcomes a "constructive" dialogue with world powers over its nuclear program, but insisted that it won't halt its uranium enrichment activities.
The Iranian report was in response to an invitation from the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia for a new round of nuclear talks. No date has been set.
Administration is confident
Clinton said the administration is confident that with the help of international partners, it can put together a comprehensive sanctions regime against Iran, "should we need it." She said it would be needed "in the event we are unsuccessful or stonewalled in our other approach."
The House hearing was Clinton's first congressional testimony since her confirmation hearing in January, and the questions were mostly friendly.
Panel members initially focused mainly on Iran, the Islamic extremist threat in Pakistan and U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Some Republicans pressed her on the administration's release of formerly classified documents on detainee interrogation methods used during the Bush administration, but she deflected those inquiries, saying it was not a matter for her to discuss publicly.
Asked about a peace deal reached last week that allows militants in Pakistan's northwest to impose Islamic law in exchange for a cease-fire with Taliban insurgents, Clinton strongly criticized Islamabad.
"I think the Pakistani government is basically abdicating to the Taliban and the extremists," she said. Later she said the administration believes the Pakistani government shares U.S. goals in defeating terrorism.
Testy exchange about Cheney
In a testy exchange, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., asked Clinton whether she supports former Vice President Dick Cheney's stated request that the CIA declassify interrogation memos that he said cast a more positive light on the methods used with detainees during the early years of the Bush administration.
"Well, it won't surprise you that I don't consider him a particularly reliable source of information," Clinton responded.
Clinton was at her most emotional in batting down questions from Reps. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., about the Obama administration's support for access to abortion through international organizations. Smith and Fortenberry are among Capitol Hill's staunchest abortion opponents.
Smith asked if the administration was seeking "in any way to weaken or overturn pro-life laws and policies in African and Latin American countries." Fortenberry asked: "Is forcing U.S. taxpayers to fund abortion in keeping with the highest values of the United States of America?"
"We have a very fundamental disagreement," Clinton told Smith, describing how she had seen women suffering in Africa, Latin America and Asia because of inadequate family planning and health care.
"It is my strongly held view that you are entitled to advocate, and everyone who agrees with you should be free to do so, anywhere in the world and so are we," Clinton said. "We happen to think that family planning is an important part of women's health and reproductive health includes access to abortion that I believe should be safe, legal and rare."
On Iran, Clinton said its nuclear program are one of the administration's highest foreign policy priorities.
"We are deploying new approaches to the threat posed by Iran and we're doing so with our eyes wide open and with no illusions," she said.
"We know the imperative of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons," she added. "After years during which the United States basically sat on the sidelines, we are now a full partner" in international talks on Iran.