Republican John McCain accused his potential White House rival Barack Obama of a “reckless” misreading of Iran’s threat yesterday, but the Democrat insisted it was time to turn the page on failed diplomacy.
The two senators pursued the opening shots of what will be a major foreign policy battle if they clinch their parties’ nominations and go head to head in November’s general election.
McCain, addressing the National Restaurant Association in Obama’s hometown of Chicago, said his probable adversary was guilty of “inexperience and reckless judgment” for advocating engagement with countries such as Iran.
“Those are very serious deficiencies for an American president to possess,” the Arizona senator said, reheating a simmering row after US President George W. Bush last week accused Democrats of wanting to appease terrorists.
McCain highlighted Obama’s remarks on Sunday, when the Illinois senator had said Iran, Cuba and Venezuela were “tiny compared to the Soviet Union,” but that Washington had never shied away from engaging Moscow during the Cold War.
“They might not be a superpower, but the threat the government of Iran poses is anything but ‘tiny,’” McCain said. “Should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, that danger would become very dire indeed.”
However, speaking in Montana yesterday as he campaigned to eliminate Hillary Clinton from the Democratic race, Obama insisted: “I understand the threat of Iran. What I know is that the Soviet Union had the ability to destroy the world several times over, had satellites spanning the globe, had huge masses of conventional military power, all directed at destroying us.”
“So I’ve made it clear, for years, that the threat from Iran is grave but what I’ve said is that we should not just talk to our friends, we should be willing to engage our enemies as well. That’s what diplomacy is all about,” he said.
“And so if we were willing to talk to [former Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev, to [former Soviet leader Nikita] Krushchev, there’s no reason we shouldn’t talk to Iran. Seems like common sense.”
The foreign policy flare-up between the White House contenders has intensified since Bush, in a speech to the Israeli parliament on Thursday, said talks with US enemies offered the “false comfort of appeasement.”
Democrats from Obama down were furious at being likened to the 1930s Western politicians who vied to appease the Nazis and noted that Bush’s own administration has been negotiating with Stalinist nuclear power North Korea.
Iran’s refusal to stop enriching uranium, in defiance of UN sanctions, has fueled Western suspicions that it is covertly developing an atomic bomb. The Islamic republic insists it wants only peaceful nuclear energy.
McCain said: “Iran is intent on acquiring nuclear weapons and the biggest national security challenge the United States currently faces is keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists.”
Noting that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had called Israel a “stinking corpse,” McCain said talks with Tehran should be at a lower level and that a presidential summit was “not a card to be played lightly.”
But Obama said Iran’s threat had only arisen because of the “Bush-McCain policy of fighting an endless war in Iraq” and the president’s refusal to talk to Tehran.
“I’m not afraid that we’ll lose some propaganda fight with a dictator. It’s time for America to win those battles, because we’ve watched George Bush lose them year after year after year,” he said.