WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama toughened his rhetoric on Friday in support of Iranian demonstrators protesting a disputed presidential election and criticized the Tehran government for its violent response.
Obama’s comments came after a strong warning to protest leaders by Iran’s supreme leader and criticism by Republican lawmakers, led by Senator John McCain, of a tepid White House response to the protests and to charges the vote was rigged.
“I’m very concerned based on some of the tenor — and tone of the statements that have been made — that the government of Iran recognize that the world is watching,” Obama told CBS News.
“And how they approach and deal with people who are, through peaceful means, trying to be heard will, I think, send a pretty clear signal to the international community about what Iran is and — and is not.”
Obama also said Washington must be careful not to become “a foil for those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States. That’s what they do. That’s what we’re already seeing. We shouldn’t be playing into that.”
Tehran, with which Washington severed ties shortly after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution, has already accused the United States of “interventionist” U.S. statements on the election.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Friday that last week’s election was won fairly by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and not rigged, as defeated candidate Mirhossein Mousavi alleges. Khamenei warned protest leaders they would be responsible for any bloodshed.
Iranian state media have reported seven or eight people killed in unrest since the election outcome was published last Saturday and prompted opposition supporters to hold mass protests in Tehran.
On Friday, McCain told Reuters the Iranian election was “corrupt” and urged Obama to speak out more forcefully on behalf of the demonstrators.
“I’m not saying send arms to them, I’m not saying they should foment revolution, I’m not saying they should do anything but hear that the United States of America supports their assertion of their basic human rights,” said McCain, who lost to Obama in last year’s U.S. presidential election.
Obama has been less critical of the election than many European leaders to avoid being accused of meddling in the election and potentially triggering a backlash against the demonstrators just as his administration seeks to engage Tehran over its nuclear program.
Obama’s spokesman on Friday sharpened the tone.
“The violence is being conducted by the government, right?” Robert Gibbs told reporters. “The Revolutionary Guard: the pictures that we saw on Monday that the president reacted to, that was them.”
“I think you’re definitely witnessing something extraordinary,” he said of the demonstrations. “I’m not sure that anybody even a week ago or so would have expected to see the courageous images that we’re seeing now.”
Gibbs said the White House supported resolutions passed by the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on Friday that condemned violence against Iranian demonstrators by the Iranian government.
Asked about Khamenei’s call for street protests to end, Gibbs echoed Obama’s comments earlier this week that protesters should be free to demonstrate in a safe environment.
“He (Obama) believes that those who wish to have their voices heard should be able to do that without fear of violence,” Gibbs said.
The sharper U.S. response came as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown also stepped up criticism of Iran, condemning it for media suppression and the use of violence.
But the White House stopped short of direct criticism of the election result itself.
Gibbs said the United States did not believe the post-election uncertainty in Iran would complicate efforts to reach out to Tehran over its nuclear program.
Additional reporting by Ross Colvin, Doug Palmer and Simon Denyer; Editing by Peter Cooney