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McCain, Obama argue over Cuba policy

  • Story Highlights
  • McCain accuses Obama of wanting to talk to Cuba without conditions
  • Obama says McCain has flip-flopped on engaging the Cuban regime
  • Obama says McCain is "obsessed" with the Iranian president
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From Rebecca Sinderbrand
CNN Washington Bureau
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(CNN) -- Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama continued their tussle over foreign policy Tuesday, shifting their argument to whether the U.S. should engage Cuba's communist regime.

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Sen. John McCain addresses a town hall meeting in Miami, Florida, Tuesday.

Over the last few days, the two have sparred over whether the U.S. should engage diplomatically with another regime considered hostile to the U.S. -- Iran.

At a Tuesday campaign event in Miami, Florida, McCain attacked Obama's position in favor of a possible relaxation of the Cuban embargo policy and discussions with the leadership of the island nation.

"These steps would send the worst possible signal to Cuba's dictators -- there is no need to undertake fundamental reforms, they can simply wait for a unilateral change in U.S. policy. I believe we should give hope to the Cuban people, not to the Castro regime," said the presumed Republican nominee, saying the embargo needed to remain in place until the Cuban government democratized. Video Watch McCain blast Obama's stance toward Cuba »

But in an interview with CNN, Obama, the front-runner in the Democratic presidential race and potentially McCain's rival in the general election, said McCain had mischaracterized his position on Cuba.

"I have never said that I was prepared to immediately normalize relations with Cuba," Obama said. "The only person who has flip-flopped on this issue is John McCain, who in 2000 said that he would be prepared to start normalizing relations even if a whole host of steps have not been taken. That is a reversal from the position he is taking now."

Obama said Tuesday that his policy, which would loosen restrictions on remittances from Cubans living in the United States to relatives on the island, and on their travel between the United States and Cuba, would be "a show of good faith" that would help move the U.S.-Cuba relationship "in the direction of normalization."

"And what I have also said is that I will be willing to engage in direct talks with Cuba," said Obama. "Now, I know that John McCain likes to characterize this as me immediately having Raul Castro over for tea. What I've said is that we would set a series of meetings with low level diplomats. ... John McCain keeps on making these statements that simply aren't based on anything I've said."

"John McCain essentially wants to continue George Bush's policies of not talking to leaders we don't like and not talking to countries we don't like. It has been a failed policy," said the Illinois senator, adding that Iran had gotten stronger because President Bush "engaged in a war in Iraq that John McCain facilitated that has strengthened Iran." Video Watch the war of words between Obama and McCain over Iran »

McCain suggested at a Chicago, Illinois, campaign event Monday that Obama doesn't understand the "basic realities of international relations" and that engaging Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad diplomatically would only embolden him.

"Sen. Obama has declared, and repeatedly reaffirmed his intention to meet the president of Iran without any preconditions, likening it to meetings between former American presidents and the leaders of the Soviet Union," said McCain, who frequently criticizes Ahmadinejad on the campaign trail. "Such a statement betrays the depth of Sen. Obama's inexperience and reckless judgment."

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Obama said Tuesday that "this obsession with Ahmadinejad is an example of us losing track of what's important."

"I would be willing to meet with Iranian leaders if we had done sufficient preparations for that meeting," Obama said. "Whether Ahmadinejad is the right person to meet with right now, we don't even know how much power he is going to have a year from now. He is not the most powerful person in Iran."

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