Obama: Concerned by Iran Supreme Leader's Remarks

Congress votes to condemn crackdown on Tehran protests

By ANNE FLAHERTY
|  Friday, Jun 19, 2009  |  Updated 6:53 PM CDT
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TEHRAN, IRAN - JUNE 18: Iranian supporters of defeated reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi demonstrate on June 18, 2009 in Tehran, Iran. Thousands of people have continued to protest in the streets of Tehran today with expectations of an even larger protest tomorrow as a day of mourning is planned for the eight people killed in Monday's protests. Iran has banned foreign media from covering rallies in the country and Iran's Guardian Council reportedly said that they would recount some of the votes in the presidential election that critics say was unfairly won by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinehjad.

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WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Friday stuck to a measured response to the uprising in Iran over a disputed presidential election, even as both houses of Congress voted overwhelmingly to condemn an official crackdown on mostly peaceful demonstrations in the streets of Tehran.

Administration officials said they remained convinced that the wiser U.S. course was caution over confrontation. President Barack Obama is coming under growing domestic political pressure to speak out more forcefully in support of protesters warned by Iran's supreme leader Friday to end their huge street rallies.

In the strongest message yet from the U.S. government, the House voted 405-1 to condemn Tehran's crackdown on protest rallies and the government's interference with Internet and cell phone communications. The Senate followed suit later in the day.

The resolution was initiated by Republicans as a veiled criticism of Obama, who has been reluctant to criticize Tehran's handling of disputed an election that left hard-liner President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power.

The resolution expresses support for "all Iranian citizens who embrace the values of freedom, human rights, civil liberties and rule of law" and affirms "the importance of democratic and fair elections."

It also condemns "the ongoing violence" by the government and pro-government militias against demonstrators, as well as government "suppression of independent electronic communications through interference with the Internet and cell phones."

Obama's chief spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said the White House welcomed the resolution, calling its language consistent with the president's.

"As the president has said, we're not going to be used as political foils and political footballs in a debate that's happening by Iranians in Iran," Gibbs said. He said the administration's view is that Iranian leaders would use fiercer U.S. support for the protesters to paint them as puppets of the Americans.

"That's not what we're going to do," Gibbs said.

A long-standing source of Iranian anger at the U.S. is the CIA's role in toppling the elected government of Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953 and replacing him with the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In the 1979 Islamic revolution that overthrew the Shah, student militants occupied the U.S. Embassy and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. In April 1980, Washington severed diplomatic relations with Iran.

Obama, who hopes to draw Tehran into talks aimed at curtailing its nuclear ambitions and potentially ending the 29-year-old rupture in diplomatic relations, has stayed mostly neutral on the election dispute. He has spoken in measured terms about supporting Iranians' aspirations to have their voices heard.

In Tehran, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sternly warned of a crackdown if protesters continue their massive street rallies. In his first response to a week of protests of the disputed election, Khamenei said opposition leaders "will be held accountable for all the violence, bloodshed and rioting" if they do not halt the rallies. Khamenei also said the balloting had not been rigged.

Obama was asked Friday in an interview with CBS News' Harry Smith what he thought about the situation in Iran.

"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 said.

"We stand behind those who are seeking justice in a peaceful way," he said, adding "we stand with those who would look to peaceful resolution of conflict and we believe that the voices of people have to be heard ..."

He said the turmoil in Iran should not be viewed as a confrontation between the U.S. and Iran, but the main focus should be on the Iranian people.

" The fact that they are on the streets, under pretty severe duress, at great risk to themselves, is a sign that there's something in that society that wants to open up," he said.

At the State Department, spokesman Ian Kelly said the administration has not been reluctant to criticize Iran.

"There have been times when demonstrators who peacefully assembled have, of course, suffered at the hands of the authorities. And we condemn any actions like that," Kelly said.

Many lawmakers, however, are calling on the administration to take a tougher approach on Iran.

Rep. Mike Pence, who co-sponsored Friday's resolution, said he disagrees with the administration that it must not meddle in Iran's internal affairs.

"When Ronald Reagan went before the Brandenburg Gate, he did not say Mr. (Mikhail) Gorbachev, that wall is none of our business," said Pence, R-Ind., of former President Ronald Reagan's famous exhortation to the Soviet leader to "tear down that wall" in a divided Berlin.

Rep. Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and co-sponsor of the resolution, said "it is not for us to decide who should run Iran, much less determine the real winner of the June 12 election.

"But we must reaffirm our strong belief that the Iranian people have a fundamental right to express their views about the future of their country freely and without intimidation," added Berman, D-Calif.

Congress — particularly the 435-member House — frequently weighs in on foreign policy matters, when a similar message from the State Department or the White House would be considered confrontational. Such resolutions have no practical effect other than to express the opinion of lawmakers and try to influence the administration in power at the time.

Senior administration officials stressed on Friday that Obama intends to stick to his current approach. They said the administration is considering what they might do if Iran's clerical regime does use force to shut down demonstrations. The officials spoke with a small group of reporters about the administration's strategy on condition of anonymity to more freely describe internal White House deliberations.

The administration's view is that a measured U.S. response gives the protesters and their quest for greater freedoms a larger — rather than smaller — chance of succeeding, the officials said.

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