WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, in some of his sharpest remarks to date, said on Friday hopes for U.S. dialogue with Iran were affected by what he called Tehran’s “outrageous” brutality following a disputed election.
“There is no doubt that any direct dialogue or diplomacy with Iran is going to be affected by the events of the last several weeks,” Obama told a joint White House news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“We don’t yet know how any potential dialogue will have been affected until we see what has happened inside of Iran,” he said.
Obama’s remarks came as protests continued in Iran over the country’s June 12 presidential election, in which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the victor by a wide margin.
Ahmadinejad’s rivals, led former Prime Minister Mirhossein Mousavi, said the election was stolen and hundreds of thousands of people have protested in Tehran and elsewhere. Security forces responded with a violent crackdown and one hardline cleric on Friday called for leading “rioters” to be executed.
Some Republicans have criticized Obama for his cautious reaction to the crisis but his tone sharpened this week after some demonstrators were killed.
Merkel, whose country is one of Iran’s main trading partners for sophisticated engineering technology, was an early critic calling for Tehran to permit peaceful protests and to recount votes in the disputed election.
“The Iranian people need to be given the right to peaceful demonstrations, that the Iranian people have the right to have votes be counted and the election results substantiated,” Merkel told the news conference.
Iranian leaders have accused Obama and other foreign officials of meddling in their affairs and encouraging the opposition but State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters their problem was self-inflicted.
“It’s not a matter of something that was brought in from the outside. A significant segment of the Iranian population believes that their voices have not been heard and that the results that ... the government has announced do not reflect the will of the people,” he said.
Still, Obama said he remained open to resuming nuclear talks between Tehran and major world powers. Washington asserts Iran’s nuclear program is designed to produce atomic weapons, but Iran says it is for energy.
“There are going to be discussions that continue on the international stage around Iran’s nuclear program,” Obama said. “I think the direct dialogue between the United States and Iran and how that proceeds, I think we’re going to have to see how that plays itself out in the days and weeks ahead.”
Crowley said the administration hoped Iran would accept an offer for talks with the United States and other major powers about its nuclear program.
“We seek engagement with Iran,” he said. “But so far ... we haven’t seen a meaningful response from Iran materialize.”
Obama rejected a demand for an apology from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had accused Obama of interfering in the Iranian election.
“I don’t take Mr. Ahmadinejad’s statements seriously about apologies, particularly given the fact that the United States has gone out of its way not to interfere with the election process in Iran,” he said.
The U.S. leader praised Iranian protesters, saying: “Their bravery in the face of brutality is a testament to their enduring pursuit of justice. The violence perpetrated against them is outrageous.”
Asked about his comment last week that there was little difference between the policies of Ahmadinejad and his chief rival, Mousavi, Obama said he could not assume the two would have had significant policy differences on issues important to U.S. national security.
But he said in recent days Mousavi had “captured the imagination or the spirit of forces within Iran that were interested in opening up.”
“He has become a representative of many of those people who are on the streets and who have displayed extraordinary bravery and extraordinary courage,” Obama said.
Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Alan Elsner and David Storey