But Obama, McCain Call For Still-More Economic Sanctions On Iran, Without Specifically Calling For European Missile Defense System

McCain Vows To Be Tough On Contractors; Boasts He Already Saved Money By Killing Plan To Lease Boeing Tanker Planes

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the Democratic presidential nominee, said that the United States cannot tolerate Iran developing nuclear weapons, pointing to Tehran using 4,000 centrifuges to produce nuclear materials.

That would threaten Israel, and it also might trigger an arms race in the Middle East, said Obama, who spoke in the first of three scheduled debates with Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican presidential nominee.

But Obama didn’t mention the U.S. plan to install a missile defense system in Europe to counter the Iranian nuclear program and steadily advancing missile capabilities. Instead, Obama spoke only of seeking increased economic sanctions against Iran for its obstinate persistence in producing nuclear materials.

The EMD system would be provided by a team led by The Boeing Co. [BA].

McCain ridiculed Obama’s stance on Iran, saying that Obama’s plan to negotiate with Iranian leaders without preconditions would be the wrong move.

Obama said there would be low-level pre-meetings before any summit meeting, and also said he is unsure whether Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be the right person to invite to a meeting, since Ahmadinejad may not be the most powerful person in the Iranian government.

McCain noted that Ahmadinejad has vowed to wipe Israel from the face of the Earth. As well, Ahmadinejad has said separately that Israel soon shall cease to exist.

Further, Iran has launched multiple missiles in a salvo test, launched a missile from a submerged submarine, and announced it will form a space program. That would involve much the same technology as an intercontinental ballistic missile that could strike targets anywhere in the world, including the United States.

In response, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency plans to install in Europe a version of the Boeing Ground-based Midcourse Defense system now operating in Alaska and California, with a European Missile Defense (EMD) radar in the Czech Republic and interceptors in ground silos in Poland. Those two governments have agreed to host the EMD system, but their legislatures have yet to vote approval, so the U.S. Congress meanwhile won’t permit construction of those facilities at the Czech and Polish sites.

Neither McCain or Obama cited the EMD system in their comments during the debate at the University of Mississippi moderated by Jim Lehrer of the Public Broadcasting System.

What Obama did say was that Iran clearly is a threat. “I believe the Republican Guard of Iran is a terrorist organization,” Obama said.

Further, he added, Iranian leaders “have funded Hezbollah, they have funded Hamas, [and] they have gone from zero centrifuges to 4,000 centrifuges to develop a nuclear weapon.”

Hezbollah and Hamas have fired thousands of rockets and missiles into Israel, hitting civilian targets, and U.S. military analysts say many of the weapons came from Iran.

Obama agreed with his opponent, saying that McCain “is absolutely right, we cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran. It would be a game changer. Not only would it threaten Israel, a country that is our stalwart ally, but it would … create an environment in which you could set off an arms race in the Middle East.”

At that point, however, instead of calling for construction of the EMD system that some Israeli military experts say could protect Israel as well as Europe, Obama spoke of seeking more sanctions against Iran.

“We do need tougher sanctions.,” Obama said, while acknowledging that such a goal might be difficult to attain.

Sanctions could be sought in the United Nations Security Council, but Russia and China are members of that panel and wield veto power over council proposals. China has at times blocked resolutions the United States sought in the council, as has Russia. And Russian-U.S. relations are at a low point, following Russian troops invading Georgia, and Russian threats to use nuclear weapons against the EMD system if the United States builds it in the Czech Republic and Poland, nations that Moscow sees as in its sphere of influence.

Obama said Russia and China might, nonetheless, agree to stiffer sanctions against Iran because Moscow and Beijing “potentially have an interest in making sure Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapon.” Iran is within 500 miles or less of China and Russia.

Obama argued that North Korea is an example of how situations can worsen if the United States doesn’t negotiate with a troublesome nation, while conceding that after U.S. and other negotiators persuaded North Korea to agree to disarmament, North Korea has begun back-tracking on its promise. (Please see separate story in this issue.)

While the United States long resisted negotiating one-on-one with Pyongyang, the United States later did participate in six-party talks with North Korea that ended in an agreement by North Korea to abandon its nuclear program.

The isolated regime did thereafter partially demolish a nuclear reactor at Yongbyon that produced plutonium for nuclear weapons. But North Korea never surrendered even one of its nuclear weapons, and now has expelled international inspectors and announced plans to rebuild and restart the reactor. Also, North Korea never admitted to having a parallel nuclear weapons program involving highly enriched uranium.

On North Korea, Obama noted how it has flouted U.S. and world opinion, defied U.S. demands and increased its nuclear capacity.

“In North Korea, we cut off talks [saying that] they’re a member of the axis of evil. We can’t deal with them. And you know what happened? They … quadrupled their nuclear capacity,” Obama noted. Further, he observed, “they tested a nuke” in an underground blast. “They tested missiles.” Those missile tests came in the 1990s, 2006 and this year. “They pulled out of the nonproliferation agreement. And they sent nuclear secrets, potentially, to countries like Syria.”

Obama concluded by adding that “when we re-engaged — because, again, the Bush administration reversed course on this — then we have at least made some progress, although right now, because of the problems in North Korea, we are seeing it on shaky ground.”

McCain On Iranian Threat

McCain was stronger in his condemnation of Iran and its nuclear program.

“My reading of the threat from Iran is that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it is an existential threat to the state of Israel and to other countries in the region, because [those countries] will feel a compelling requirement to acquire nuclear weapons,” he said.

Iran cannot be permitted to follow through on its vow to annihilate Israel, McCain said. “We cannot have a second Holocaust,” he said.

Instead of urging erection of a missile defense shield to protect Israel, however, McCain didn’t mention such a shield, and instead proposed forming a committee of democratic nations to discuss the matter. Like Obama, McCain spoke instead of imposing economic sanctions on Iran.

“What I have proposed for a long time — I’ve had conversations with foreign leaders about forming a league of democracies,” McCain said.

However, such a group already exists, called the Group of Seven Nations. The G-7 heads of state meet annually to discuss how to confront global problems, and their ministers meet more often, such as around the spring and fall International Monetary Fund-World Bank meetings, and at other times.

As well, NATO, a military defense organization formed decades ago after World War II, includes military leaders of 26 countries including the major democratic powers, except Australia and Japan.

The developed nations “could impose significant meaningful, painful sanctions on the Iranians that I think could have a beneficial effect,” McCain said.

During the hour-and-a-half debate, McCain also spoke of another Boeing-led program, boasting that he blocked a plan to have Boeing build 100 new KC-767 aerial refueling tanker planes for the Air Force in a $23.5 billion lease-purchase deal.

McCain at the time said that buying the planes outright would be cheaper than a lease-purchase deal, and he said in the debate that he saved the taxpayers $6.8 billion.

However, McCain also helped to kill any purchase of planes from Boeing, working to unearth a conflict of interest by an Air Force procurement official working on the lease- purchase deal.

Consequently, the Air Force rebid the tanker contract, this time with Boeing, headquartered in Chicago, facing competition from a team of prime contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] of Los Angeles and Airbus Industrie, a unit of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. of Europe.

The Air Force awarded a contract to Northrop/EADS, but this time it was for 179 planes, and the cost was $35 billion. Boeing protested, and another bidding contest will be held, perhaps next year.