McCain Urges Sanctions, Divestment to Press Iran

In a speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, John McCain slammed his potential Democratic opponent Barack Obama on his proposed policies on Iran and Israel. Video by AP
By Michael D. Shear, Robin Wright and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, called yesterday for broad sanctions against Iran and a South Africa-style worldwide divestment strategy aimed at pressuring Tehran to abandon efforts to acquire nuclear weapons and encourage its people's democratic aspirations.

In a speech to the pro-Israel lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington, McCain (Ariz.) declared Iran the "foremost" enemy in the Middle East. He said Iran could pose an "existential threat" to Israel if it acquires a nuclear bomb.

"A sponsor of both Hamas and Hezbollah, the leadership of Iran has repeatedly used violence to undermine Israel and the Middle East peace process," McCain said. "It remains the world's chief sponsor of terrorism and threatens to destabilize the entire Middle East, from Basra to Beirut."

McCain again mocked his likely Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), for his willingness to meet unconditionally with Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"It's hard to see what such a summit with President Ahmadinejad would actually gain, except an earful of anti-Semitic rants, and a worldwide audience for a man who denies one Holocaust and talks before frenzied crowds about starting another," McCain said.

Instead, McCain told the approving crowd, the United States should lead the world in political and economic sanctions against Iran, including limits on Iranian imports of gasoline and an enhanced effort by worldwide financial institutions to freeze its assets.

The Bush administration has mobilized the United Nations to impose new sanctions on individuals, banks and organizations linked to Iran's military in an attempt to get Tehran to suspend its uranium-enrichment program.

Iran has been under U.S. sanctions since shortly after the 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, during which 52 American citizens were held hostage for 444 days. The Carter administration imposed the first sweeping sanctions cutting off business dealings with the country.

The past five administrations have added new layers of sanctions in an attempt to pressure Iran to change its policies on issues such as support for extremist groups and cooperating with the United Nations on its nuclear program. Last fall, the Bush administration sanctioned three of Iran's largest banks.

But McCain appears not to have much confidence in the U.N. process, saying the United States should be prepared to step in.

"Should the Security Council continue to delay in this responsibility, the United States must lead like-minded countries in imposing multilateral sanctions outside the U.N. framework," he said.

Obama's campaign responded quickly to McCain's speech, accusing him of "stubbornly" insisting on what spokesman Hari Sevugan called a "dangerous and failed foreign policy that has clearly made the United States and Israel less secure."

Sevugan noted that McCain had voted against a divestment bill sponsored by Obama, and said the senator from Arizona "stubbornly refuses to engage in aggressive diplomacy, ruling it out unconditionally as a tool of American power."

McCain's opposition to meeting with Iranian leaders puts him at odds with most Americans and nearly half of his supporters, according to a Gallup poll released yesterday. Nearly six in 10 respondents in the poll said it would be a "good idea" for the U.S. president to meet with the president of Iran, and two-thirds thought the president should be open to talks with America's enemies more broadly.

Those who back Obama in a hypothetical general-election match-up with McCain overwhelmingly (78 percent) favored direct presidential-level talks with Iran, as did 47 percent of those who would vote for McCain if the election were held today.

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