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The presidential candidates quarreled over Iran policy. How to deal with Iran was one of the most contentious topics during the first debate Friday night between U.S. Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). The debate, at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, was to have focused exclusively on foreign policy, but also featured economic issues because of the financial services crisis. McCain relentlessly focused on Obama’s response more than a year ago during a primaries debate when asked if he would meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, in his first year of office without preconditions. At the time, Obama said “I would.” He has since backtracked, saying he meant he would not count out a meeting with Ahmadinejad if there were preparations, and his advisers privately admit that the response at the time was a mistake. However, Obama insisted Friday night that McCain was misrepresenting his position. McCain pressed the point. “Now here is Ahmadinejad, who is now in New York talking about the extermination of the State of Israel, of wiping Israel off the map, and we’re going to sit down without precondition across the table to legitimize and give a propaganda platform to a person that is espousing the extermination of the State of Israel and therefore — then giving them more credence in the world arena — and therefore saying they’ve probably been doing the right thing because you will sit down across the table from them and that will legitimize their illegal behavior,” he said. Obama replied, “First of all, Ahmadinejad’s not the most powerful person in Iran, so he may not be the right person to talk to. But I reserve the right as president of the United States to meet with anybody at a time and place of my choosing if I think it’s going to keep America safe.”

Securing Israel from Iran’s potential nuclear threat was a concern cited by both leaders. “It’s an existential threat to the State of Israel, and it is a threat to the region, because the other countries in the region will feel a compelling requirement to acquire nuclear weapons as well,” McCain said. “Now we cannot allow a second Holocaust.” Obama agreed, saying, “Senator 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 also create an environment in which you could set up an arms race in the Middle East.”

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