TEHRAN (FNA)- John McCain, Republican presidential candidate, has said he would authorize his secretary of state to talk to Iran about its nuclear program, in a break with Bush administration policy and his own previous stance.
His comments, on one of the most charged issues, reflect a measure of convergence on foreign policy between McCain and Barack Obama, his Democratic rival.
Tehran’s nuclear plans are widely seen as among the biggest challenges facing the next US president and were at the centre of fierce exchanges between McCain and Obama in their debate on Friday night.
But underneath the invective, McCain went further than before in indicating he favored high-level meetings with Iran. His comments narrowed his practical policy differences with Obama, who has long championed dialogue with Tehran.
On Pakistan and Afghanistan, the two clashed rhetorically and over whether the Pakistan-Afghanistan region represented “the central front on terror”. But they outlined similar plans that involved sending more troops to Afghanistan and cooperating with Pakistan’s government.
McCain has previously dismissed calls for high-profile direct talks with Iran. “The most overrated aspect of our dialogue about international relations is direct face-to-face talks,” he told Fox News last year.
But the Republican candidate appeared to change tack on Friday night. “There could be secretary (of state) level and lower level meetings,” he said. “I’ve always encouraged them.”
The exchange arose after Obama cited Henry Kissinger, the Republican grandee and informal McCain adviser, who called this month for negotiations at the secretary of state level without prior conditions.
By contrast, Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, will only discuss the nuclear file with her Iranian counterpart if Iran reins in its program first. “You always have to have the right conditions,” she said last week.
McCain agreed with Kissinger but contrasted himself with Obama by highlighting his reluctance to meet Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He called for a new league of democracies to impose sanctions on Iran working with countries such as Britain, France and Germany.
But the three are wary of any move that appears to circumvent the United Nations. “If we want to move forward, we shouldn’t antagonize countries that we need, like Russia and China,” said one European diplomat.
“It doesn’t make sense. If a non-democracy wants to increase pressure on Iran, it is welcome to.”
The United States and Iran broke diplomatic relations in April 1980, after Iranian students seized the United States’ espionage center at its embassy in the heart of Tehran. The two countries have had tense relations ever since.
Iran and the United States are locked in a standoff over Tehran’s nuclear drive. The United States and its Western allies accuse Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian nuclear program, while they have never presented any corroborative document to substantiate their allegations.
Iran vehemently denies the charges and insists that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
Observers believe that the US is at loggerheads with Iran over the independent and home-grown nature of Tehran’s nuclear technology, which gives the Islamic Republic the potential to turn into a world power and a role model for other third-world countries. Washington has laid much pressure on Iran to make it give up the most sensitive and advanced part of the technology, which is uranium enrichment, a process used for producing nuclear fuel for power plants.
Washington’s push for additional UN penalties contradicts the report by 16 US intelligence bodies that endorsed the civilian nature of Iran’s programs. Following the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) and similar reports by the IAEA head – one in November and the other one in February – which praised Iran’s truthfulness about key aspects of its past nuclear activities and announced settlement of outstanding issues with Tehran, any effort to impose further sanctions on Iran seems to be completely irrational.
Observers believe that the shift of policy by the White House to send William Burns – the third highest-ranking diplomat in the US – to the latest round of Iran-West talks happened after Bush’s attempt to rally international pressure against Iran lost steam due to the growing international vigilance.
Many world nations have called the UN Security Council pressure against Iran unjustified, especially in the wake of recent IAEA reports, stressing that Tehran’s case should be normalized and returned to the UN nuclear watchdog due to the Islamic Republic’s increased cooperation with the agency.