U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates faced tough questions from lawmakers Tuesday about the Bush administration's refusal to hold talks with Iran unless Tehran first halts its uranium enrichment program. Gates told a Senate panel that it is an open question whether such talks would succeed while President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is in power. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

At a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on next year's Pentagon budget request, two lawmakers suggested the time has come for the United States to open wide-ranging talks with Iran - without preconditions.

Their comments come in the wake of a report in the Jerusalem Post saying a U.S. military strike against Iran is likely before the end of President Bush's term in office next January. The administration strongly denies the report. Statements from the White House and State Department say the U.S. is focused on a diplomatic resolution of Iran's nuclear issue, but that all options remain on the table.

The news report was not mentioned at the Senate hearing.

Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a member of President Bush's Republican Party, suggested that holding direct talks with Iran was the best option for the United States. "I think there is an opportunity for dialogue. But I think we have to be a little courageous about it, and take a chance, because the alternative is very, very, very bleak," he said.

He questioned the administration's insistence on having Iran halt its uranium enrichment program before opening talks. "It seems to me that it is unrealistic to try to have discussions and say to the opposite party as a precondition to discussions we want the principle concession that we are after. Do you think it makes sense to insist on a concession like stopping enriching uranium, which is what our ultimate objective is before we even sit down with them on a broader range of issues?," he said.

Gates responded by defending the administration's policy of using leverage with Iran. "The key here is developing leverage, either through economic, or diplomatic, or military pressures on the Iranian government so they believe they must have talks with the United States because there is something they want from us, and that is the relief of the pressure," he said.

Gates said it was an open question whether talks with Tehran would yield success, saying that under President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Iran has experienced a resurgence of the hardline views of the Islamic revolutionaries.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, suggested the United States engage with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. "It is not the president of Iran that counts in these matters, it is the Supreme Leader. It seems to me that we ought to find ways to develop back channel or front channel discussions with this individual. I really think the fate of the area depends on it. I think saber-rattling and talking about exercises for military intrusions do nothing but escalate the situation," she said.

President Bush earlier this month told the Israeli Knesset that negotiations with terrorists and radicals amounted to appeasement. That comment prompted an angry response from Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, who also has advocated greater engagement with Iran.

Gates said there may have been a missed opportunity in 2003 and 2004 in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq when the more moderate Mohammed Khatami was Iran's president.