CHICAGO (Reuters) - U.S. Republican presidential candidate John McCain accused Democratic front-runner Barack Obama on Monday of underestimating the threat posed by Iran and ridiculed his pledge to meet its leader if elected.
Seizing on a theme likely to play out in the campaign for the November election, McCain sought to portray first-term Illinois Sen. Obama as too inexperienced to be trusted as commander in chief.
At a speech to the National Restaurant Association in Obama’s home town of Chicago, McCain said the Democratic front-runner’s stated desire to hold direct talks, without preconditions, with the leaders of hostile countries like Iran “betrays the depth of Senator Obama’s inexperience and reckless judgment.”
McCain said a meeting would grant Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prestige and international legitimacy and probably would not persuade him to give up nuclear ambitions.
“It could very well convince him that those policies are succeeding in strengthening his hold on power, and embolden him to continue his very dangerous behavior. The next president ought to understand such basic realities of international relations,” McCain said.
The debate over Iran was triggered last week when President George W. Bush said in Israel that talking to “terrorists and radicals” was appeasement.
Ripping Obama again at a news conference in Georgia, McCain said Ahmadinejad wanted nuclear weapons, would destroy Israel, and is exporting weapons into Iraq used to kill U.S. troops.
“This is the kind of person that Sen. Obama wants to sit down and have unconditional negotiations and discussions (with),” he said.
Campaigning in Montana, Obama said President John Kennedy’s willingness to talk to the Soviet Union during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis averted a nuclear catastrophe with a country that posed a much greater threat than Iran does now.
“Why shouldn’t we have the same courage and the confidence to talk to our enemies?” asked Obama, who is on the cusp of defeating rival Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
“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.
Obama said Iran has been strengthened by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which McCain supported.
“Demanding that a country meets all your conditions ... before you meet with them, that’s not a strategy, it’s just naive, wishful thinking,” Obama said.
McCain said Iran obviously does not possess the military power the former Soviet Union had, “but that does not mean that the threat posed by Iran is insignificant.”
“Should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, that danger would become very dire, indeed. They might not be a superpower, but the threat the government of Iran poses is anything but tiny,” the Arizona senator said.
Once McCain completed the Iran portion of his speech, three anti-Iraq war protesters stood up in the audience and sang, “McCain is in the kitchen with George Bush.”
All women, they wore pink aprons with a slogan on them, “Don’t buy Bush’s war.”
Their outburst stunned the crowd into silence for a moment, but then members of the audience began booing and the demonstrators were led out.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Andy Sullivan and David Wiessler)
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