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CHICAGO, May 19 (Reuters) - U.S. Republican presidential candidate John McCain accused Democratic front-runner Barack Obama on Monday of underestimating the threat posed by Iran and ridiculed his pledge to meet Iran's leader if elected.
McCain, in a theme likely to play out in the campaign for the November election, sought to portray Obama as too inexperienced to be trusted as commander in chief.
The Arizona senator traveled to Chicago to give a speech to the National Restaurant Association in which he vowed to aid small farmers by targeting agricultural tariffs and subsidies doled out to agribusiness.
But as he began his speech, he departed from his prepared remarks to criticize Obama, saying the Illinois senator who is on the cusp of winning the Democratic presidential nomination had said the threat posed to U.S. national security by Iran was small compared to that of the Cold War-era Soviet Union.
McCain said Iran obviously is not a superpower and does not possess the military power the former Soviet Union had, "but that does not mean that the threat posed by Iran is insignificant."
He accused Iran of seeking nuclear weapons -- Tehran denies this -- and said it is providing some of the deadliest explosive devices used in Iraq to kill U.S. troops, is sowing discord in the Middle East and would like to destroy Israel.
"Should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, that danger would become very dire, indeed. They might not be a superpower, but the threat the government of Iran poses is anything but tiny," he said.
Further, McCain said, Obama's stated desire to hold direct talks with leaders of hostile countries like Iran "betrays the depth of Senator Obama's inexperience and reckless judgment."
He said such an "ill-conceived" meeting would grant Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prestige and international legitimacy and probably would not persuade him to give up nuclear ambitions.
"It could very well convince him that those policies are succeeding in strengthening his hold on power, and embolden him to continue his very dangerous behavior. The next president ought to understand such basic realities of international relations," McCain said.
Obama says Republican President George W. Bush has blundered by refusing direct talks with leaders of countries like Iran and North Korea and should try a new approach.
Once McCain completed the Iran portion of his speech, three anti-Iraq war protesters stood up in the audience in the convention hall and sang, "McCain is in the kitchen with George Bush."
They wore pink aprons with a slogan on them, "Don't buy Bush's war."
They stunned the crowd into silence for a moment, but then members of the audience began booing and the demonstrators were led out.
"These things happen on occasion and we just move on," McCain said, saying he respected the right of freedom of speech.
McCain also took Obama to task on his trade policies, saying Obama has a habit of talking down trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. (Editing by Mohammad Zargham) (To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)