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Obama denounces Iran crackdown on protesters

But President Obama stops short of calling off his diplomatic overture to Tehran and refuses to threaten consequences.

June 24, 2009|Paul Richter

WASHINGTON — Under pressure to speak out more forcefully, President Obama on Tuesday condemned the Iranian government's violent suppression of dissent and declared the world "appalled and outraged" by its crackdown on protesters.

Despite employing his toughest language yet to criticize Iranian authorities, Obama refused to threaten any consequences and stopped short of freezing a major foreign policy goal: wooing Iran into diplomatic contacts over its nuclear program, its support of Islamic militant organizations and other contentious issues.

"We don't yet know how this is going to play out," he said.

Obama's comments drew a clear distinction between the actions of police and militiamen on the streets of Tehran and other cities and the conduct of Iran's June 12 election -- even though protesters argue that the same hard-line faction is responsible for stealing the election and launching the crackdown.

The president has been carefully calibrating his words since the Iranian election, in which incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was named the winner despite charges of fraud by his main challenger, moderate former Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi.

U.S. officials are well aware that because of decades of animosity between the two nations, coming out strongly in favor of one side could harm those they are trying to help.

But Obama spoke bluntly Tuesday about free speech and human rights, denouncing the beatings and jailings of protesters. He singled out as "heartbreaking" the shooting of a young Iranian woman that was captured on a cellphone camera and beamed around the world via the Internet.

He was careful, however, to avoid taking sides on the question of who won the election.

Obama said that as president he has the responsibility of advancing U.S. national security interests and wants to pursue talks with Iran, if its rulers "choose that path."

The streets of Tehran were quiet Tuesday after a week of nearly daily protests over the election results. The Islamic Republic's Guardian Council, which is looking into charges of electoral fraud, said it needed more time to review them. It said earlier in the day that it had found no evidence of major irregularities.

Republicans, as well as some Democrats, have pressed Obama to take a stronger stand as the Iranian government intensified efforts to halt the protests.

But Obama laughed off a question from a reporter who asked whether he had hardened his remarks in response to criticism from his former presidential opponent, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and others.

"What do you think?" the president responded.

McCain last week denounced what he called a "corrupt, fraud, sham of an election" and demanded that Obama speak out against it.

On Tuesday, McCain said he appreciated Obama's latest comments, but said the White House should take additional actions, including new communications and educational efforts for Iranians and Muslims, new United Nations sanctions and a reconsideration of talks with Iran.

"You can't seriously negotiate with a country that's beating and killing their citizens, and I don't think the president quite understands that," McCain said on CNN's "Larry King Live."

Obama's condemnation marked a change since Saturday, so far the bloodiest day of protests, when he admonished the Iranian government to observe "universal rights" of assembly and free speech. "The world is watching," the president warned.

Obama's sharpened criticism may satisfy human rights advocates, who have been highly critical of Iran's crackdown on protests.

At least 13 people were killed Saturday, and Western officials estimate that 100 people have died across Iran since the protests began.

However, Obama argued Tuesday that intervening more directly would serve only the interests of the Iranian government, which he said mistranslated his Saturday comments to convince Iranians that American meddling is driving the protests.

Iran has accused foreign news media, particularly the BBC and Voice of America, of stirring up unrest.

Obama also took the unusual step of denying that the CIA was involved in the postelection protests, responding to Iranian authorities' attempts to discredit critics by portraying them as tools of U.S. spy agencies.

"There are reports suggesting that the CIA is behind all this, all of which are patently false," Obama said, adding that the dissent in Tehran had been "generated indigenously" and could not be blamed on U.S. interference.

Accusations of U.S. meddling resonate in Iran because of a long, antagonistic history that can be traced to a CIA-backed overthrow of Iran's elected government in 1953, an episode that Obama acknowledged in a speech this month in Cairo.

Gathering intelligence on Iran remains a high priority for the CIA, which in recent years operated a covert program aimed at encouraging Iranian nuclear scientists to defect. But U.S. spy officials have described Iran as a difficult target and the CIA presence there as limited.

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