WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidate John McCain said Tuesday he prays every night the United States doesn't go to war with Iran, and he blamed Russia and China for standing in the way of a diplomatic solution.
"I don't think it's inevitable that we're in a conflict with Iran," McCain said in an interview with The Associated Press. "But I certainly see it as one scenario that could, and I emphasize could, take place if we are not effective" in persuading Iran to drop its nuclear ambitions or in enlisting reluctant nations to back punitive sanctions, McCain said.
"There's a whole lot of things we can do before we seriously consider the military option," he emphasized. But he added: "I still say there's only one thing worse than military action against Iran and that is a nuclear-armed Iran."
The Arizona senator talked at length — and in detail — about everything from climate change to Social Security to Democrats serving in his White House if he's elected. But much of his hour-long interview with AP reporters and editors was devoted to foreign policy.
"I keep praying every night that we will avoid a conflict with Iran," he said.
McCain said it was likely — even probable — that diplomatic pressure and nonmilitary measures could be effective.
With sharp words, he accused both Russia and China of causing gridlock in the U.N. Security Council and hindering the world body's ability to sanction Iran or address pressing matters in Darfur, Burma and other trouble spots.
If elected, he said he would form a league of democracies to circumvent the Security Council and enact tough sanction against Iran and other problem countries.
"It seems very clear that both Russia and China have world peace as a second-place category to their own selfish national interests," McCain said.
He criticized China as "doing nothing while Buddhist monks get killed, imprisoned and even tortured" in Burma.
On Russia, McCain said Vladimir Putin "seems to be interested in sticking his thumb in our eye more than he is in most anything else recently." Referring to a meeting between President Bush and Putin in July at the Bush family compound in Maine, McCain said: "I wouldn't have invited him to Kennebunkport if it'd have been me."
Elsewhere in Washington on Tuesday, GOP presidential rivals Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson also addressed Iran in speeches to the Republican Jewish Coalition. Giuliani, the former New York mayor, said he would prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons while Thompson, the former Tennessee senator, said the U.S. must pursue sanctions as well as reach out to the Iranian people to "help them get rid of their hated regime."
McCain, whose campaign stumbled over the summer, arrived at the AP without the entourage that typically trails most White House candidates.
Relaxed, he discussed his vision for the country as he nursed a cup of coffee and doodled on white paper before him. On his wrist was a bracelet bearing the name of a soldier killed in Iraq. Near him was a stack of newspapers and manila file folders.
At one point, his mobile phone rang and interrupted his comments on Iran. The episode was reminiscent of Giuliani taking calls from his wife, Judith, in the middle of speeches, and the similarity was not lost on McCain. He paused, reached for his phone, said he would turn it off, and did. Only after, did he joke: "So, um, hello, Judith. ..." Turned out, it was McCain's wife, Cindy, calling.
On other issues, McCain said he:
—Could not pinpoint an exact time in which the U.S. military would no longer experience casualties in Iraq. He said: "If we make the same progress in the next seven or eight months that we have made in the last seven or eight months, we will see a significant reduction in U.S. casualties and you could see furthur troop drawdowns."
—Favors empowering a bipartisan commission to come up with a Social Security solution. He said he would not make preconditions but would voice his support for private savings accounts and no tax increases.
—Wants to appoint commissions akin to those that determine which military bases to close to figure out how to address Medicare and, perhaps, change the tax code. Congress then would get an up-or-down vote on each plan. He said "special interests heavily outweigh the public interest" when Congress tries to tackle such complicated issues.
—Believes the climate is changing as a result of human actions and views greenhouse gas emissions as a threat to the planet's future. "History will judge the Bush administration very harshly because of their failure to take meaningful action on climate change," he said.
—Would "very likely" hire Democrats to work in his White House. "I think there's certain issues that argue for people of talent," he said, highlighting the need to fix government bureaucracies, eliminate wasteful spending, and overhaul the weapons-purchasing system.
—Doesn't plan to accept public financing right now even though a new finance report shows his campaign in the red. "It's always an option that we are prepared to exercise if we need to," McCain said. He has more than $1.6 million available for the primaries but is more than $1.7 million in debt.