From NBC/NJ's Carrie Dann
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As the presidential campaigns sharpen their knives for the gelling general-election battle, McCain started the week by courting one of the country's powerful lobbies, wielding the key differences between his Middle East policy and Obama's.
Speaking to attendees at the annual conference of AIPAC, the top pro-Israel lobby here, McCain offered a hearty condemnation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose fiery vows to eliminate the state of Israel have rendered him explosively reviled by the AIPAC community.
The receptive audience offered McCain the chance to take a series of juicy swipes at rival Obama, who has suggested that he would participate in presidential diplomatic meetings with the Iranian leader. McCain called Obama's proposal a "serious misreading of history," that would bear little fruit except for "an earful of anti-Semitic rants" and a dangerous "spectacle."
His comments were received with loud enthusiasm from the conference-goers, who rewarded him with a standing ovation when he thumped Obama for his opposition to a 2007 amendment that classified Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. (Though, Obama said at the time that he did not oppose labeling the group a terrorist organization, but other language within the measure.)
At the time, McCain said Obama described the measure as sending the "wrong message" to the international community.
"Here, too, he is mistaken," McCain said of his Democratic rival.
"Holding Iran's influence in check, and holding a terrorist organization accountable, sends exactly the right message -- to Iran, to the region and to the world."
Obama said at the time, "There was language embodied in that legislation that indicated that our troop presences in Iraq, in part, should be dependent on dealing with Iran." He added, "And I think, given the past experience with Iraq, given Sen. Clinton's authorization of the war in Iraq, she should know that when you give this Administration a blank check, you shouldn't be surprised if they cash it."
Rather than diplomatic meetings, McCain proposed stringent financial squeezes as a way to diffuse the volatile tensions spawned by Ahmadinejad's incendiary ideas. He suggested tough sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran, coupled with a campaign for global divestment from the nation and strict limitations on oil imports, which he hopes will be enacted by an increasingly participatory UN Security Council.
"Should the Security Council continue to delay in this responsibility, the United States must lead like-minded countries in imposing multilateral sanctions outside the UN framework," he added.
Toward the end of his remarks, McCain also needled Obama for his opposition to the Iraq troop surge and painted a grim future for Israel should an Obama administration withdraw troops before the war's successful conclusion.
"Allowing a potential terrorist sanctuary would profoundly affect the security of the United States, Israel, and our other friends, and would invite further intervention from Iraq's neighbors, including an emboldened Iran," McCain said.
McCain was the first speaker at the three-day conference, touted by AIPAC organizers at its largest ever with more than 7,000 participants.
Obama, as well as Hillary Clinton, address the group on Wednesday.
The Obama campaign took issue with McCain's remarks, and issued the following lengthy rebuttal: "John McCain stubbornly insists on continuing a dangerous and failed foreign policy that has clearly made the United States and Israel less secure. Here are the results of the policies that John McCain has supported, and would continue. During the Bush Administration, Iran has dramatically expanded its nuclear program, going from zero centrifuges to more than 3000 centrifuges.
"During the Bush Administration, Iran has expanded its influence throughout a vitally important region, plying Hamas and Hezbollah with money and arms. During the Bush Administration, Hamas took over Gaza. Most importantly, the war in Iraq that John McCain supported and promises to continue indefinitely has done more to dramatically strengthen and embolden Iran than anything in a generation.
"Confronted with that reality, John McCain promises four more years of the same policies that have strengthened Iran, making the United States and Israel less safe. He promises to continue a war in Iraq that has emboldened Iran and strengthened its hand. He promises sanctions that the Bush Administration has been unable to persuade the Security Council to deliver. He promises a divestment campaign, even though he refused to sign on to Barack Obama's bipartisan divestment bill, refused to get his colleagues to lift an anonymous hold on the bill, and willfully ignores the fact that trade and investment between Iran and Iraq continue to expand. He stubbornly refuses to engage in aggressive diplomacy, ruling it out unconditionally as a tool of American power.
"Instead of recognizing reality, John McCain continues to run on a platform of doubling down on George Bush's failed policies, while carrying on his divisive brand of politics. The United States and Israel cannot afford four more years of an unwillingness to change course."