By Jeff Mason
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - The United States should offer to protect countries in the Middle East from Iran if those countries forgo nuclear weapons of their own, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday.
Clinton, a senator from New York, and rival Barack Obama, a senator from Illinois, reaffirmed their commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and held out the possibility of military action if Tehran attacked Israel.
The two candidates, vying to become the Democratic presidential nominee to take on Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain in the November election, made their comments in a debate before next week's Pennsylvania nominating contest.
Clinton, who has painted herself as stronger on foreign policy issues than Obama, said Washington should bring other Middle Eastern nations in addition to Israel under a security "umbrella" to create a deterrent against an Iranian threat.
"I think that we should be looking to create an umbrella of deterrence that goes much further than just Israel," she said.
"We will let the Iranians know, that, yes, an attack on Israel would trigger massive retaliation, but so would an attack on those countries that are willing to go under the security umbrella and forswear their own nuclear ambitions."
She did not name specific countries to be a part of such an agreement.
Obama said keeping Iran free of nuclear weapons would be one of his top priorities in the White House.
"I will take no options off the table when it comes to preventing them from using nuclear weapons or obtaining nuclear weapons," he said. "And that would include any threats directed at Israel, or any of our allies."
The U.N. Security Council has slapped three rounds of sanctions on Iran for not heeding demands to halt uranium enrichment, work the West says Tehran wants to master so it can build nuclear bombs. Iran says it wants to generate electricity.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Wednesday that Iran was ready for negotiations on nuclear and other issues provided such talks did not violate the country's rights.
The two candidates tussled over how far to go in engaging Iran. Obama, who has drawn criticism for saying he would meet with U.S. foes directly, called for direct talks with Tehran to halt its nuclear program.
"I believe that that includes direct talks with the Iranians, where we are laying out very clearly for them: Here are the issues that we find unacceptable, not only development of nuclear weapons, but also funding terrorist organizations," he said.
Clinton advocated diplomatic engagement but said she would not meet with Ahmadinejad.
"We've got to begin diplomatic engagement with Iran, and we want the region and the world to understand how serious we are about it," she said.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)