John McCain, Republican presidential candidate, has said he would authorise his secretary of state to talk to Iran about its nuclear programme, in a break with Bush administration policy and his own previous stance.
By Daniel Dombey in Washington
His comments, on one of the most charged issues, reflect a measure of convergence on foreign policy between Mr 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 Mr McCain and Mr Obama in their debate on Friday night.
But underneath the invective, Mr McCain went further than before in indicating he favoured high-level meetings with Iran. His comments narrowed his practical policy differences with Mr Obama, who has long championed dialogue with Tehran and who, like Mr McCain, favours tougher international sanctions over Iran’s nuclear programme.
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 co-operating with Pakistan’s government.
Mr 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 Mr 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 programme first. “You always have to have the right conditions,” she said last week.
Mr McCain agreed with Mr Kissinger but contrasted himself with Mr Obama by highlighting his reluctance to meet Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iran’s president. 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 wary of any move that appears to circumvent the United Nations. “If we want to move forward, we shouldn’t antagonise 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.”