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(photo credit: AP)
Republican John McCain accused Democrat Barack Obama of inexperience and reckless judgment for saying Iran does not pose the same serious threat to the United States as the Soviet Union did in its day.
The likely Republican presidential nominee made the criticism Monday in Chicago, Obama's home turf.
"Such a statement betrays the depth of Senator Obama's inexperience and reckless judgment.
These are very serious deficiencies for an American president to possess," McCain said at the restaurant industry's annual meeting.
He was referring to comments Obama made Sunday in Pendleton, Oregon: "Iran, Cuba, Venezuela - these countries are tiny compared to the Soviet Union. They don't pose a serious threat to us the way the Soviet Union posed a threat to us.
And yet we were willing to talk to the Soviet Union at the time when they were saying, `We're going to wipe you off the planet."'
McCain's campaign on Monday distributed a video clip of Obama making the comments.
McCain listed the dangers he sees from Iran: It provides deadly explosive devices used to kill US soldiers in Iraq, sponsors insurgents in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East and is committed to Israel's destruction.
"The threat the government of Iran poses is anything but tiny," McCain said.
Responding to McCain, Obama told a town hall rally later Monday in Billings, Montana, "Let me be absolutely clear: Iran is a grave threat."
But the Soviet Union posed an added threat, he said. "The Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear weapons, and Iran doesn't have a single one."
Obama said the threat from Iran had grown as a result of the US war in Iraq. "Iran is the biggest single beneficiary of a war in Iraq that should have never been authorized and should have never been waged," he said. "And John McCain wants to double down that failed policy."
If McCain is elected, Obama said, "We'll keep talking tough in Washington, while countries like Iran ignore our tough talk."
The alternative, Obama said, is to follow the example of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who negotiated with the Soviet Union. Obama called for "tough, disciplined and direct diplomacy."
"That's what Kennedy did; that's what Reagan did," he said.
Although the Democratic primary race rolls on, McCain and Obama have criticized each other as if they are in the general election campaign. On Friday, Obama called McCain's foreign policy "naive and irresponsible"; McCain questioned whether Obama has the strength and judgment to be commander in chief.
At the heart of the dispute between the candidates is Obama's assertion that, as president, he would meet with leaders of these rogue countries without preconditions. Obama insists that direct engagement with the Soviets helped prevent nuclear war and, over time, helped to bring down the Berlin Wall.
McCain strongly disagrees with Obama's position; he argues such a meeting would lend international prestige to US foes.
"An unconditional summit meeting with the next American president would confer both international legitimacy on the Iranian president and could strengthen him domestically, when he is very unpopular among the Iranian people," McCain said.
Later Monday, McCain said it makes no sense that Obama would not negotiate with the Islamic terrorist group Hamas but would meet with Iran, a sponsor of Hamas.
"It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the issues we face, particularly in the Middle East," McCain told reporters in Savannah, Georgia.
In Chicago, McCain's remarks were interrupted for several moments by three protesters from the Code Pink anti-war group, one of whom yelled, "No war in Iran!" as she was hustled from the room.
McCain prefaced his speech to the National Restaurant Association with criticism of Obama but then focused mostly on economic issues. He said Obama and his Democratic rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, would raise taxes and regulate businesses "more than ever."
The Arizona senator has been trying to counter the allegation by Democrats that McCain would continue Bush administration policies.
Yet McCain's arguments on Monday - on tax cuts, trade agreements and farm subsidies - mirror those of President Bush.
McCain said letting the Bush tax cuts expire, as the Democrats would do, would raise taxes by a trillion dollars or more. And he said Obama was wrong to oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement, a pact that, though still controversial after more than a decade, resulted in an estimated $17 billion in exports from Illinois alone.
McCain said farm subsidy payments, like those in the farm bill Congress recently sent to Bush, are the biggest obstacle to global trade deals. Like McCain, Bush dislikes the bill and is threatening to veto it.
"Here we are at a time when food prices are at historic highs, and farm income is up by 56 percent in just the past two years," McCain said. "Yet even now, the Congress has voted to give billions of dollars in subsidies to some of the biggest and richest agribusiness corporations in America."
The Illinois Farm Bureau and other farm groups point out that high energy prices have driven up the costs farmers pay to produce their crops.
"Farmers are in the middle of planting the most expensive crop in history," Illinois Farm Bureau President Philip Nelson said last week.
Acknowledging he was in Obama territory, McCain said he agreed with Illinois Democrats that Obama is the right choice to be their senator.
"I couldn't agree more, and I promise to do everything in my power to help him finish his first term in the United States Senate," McCain quipped.
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