Dramatically hardening the U.S. reaction to Iran's disputed elections and bloody aftermath, President Barack Obama condemned the violence against protesters Tuesday and lent his strongest support yet to their accusations the hardline victory was a fraud.
Obama, who has been accused by some Republicans of being too timid in his response to eventsin Iran, declared himself "appalled and outraged" by the deaths and intimidation in Tehran'sstreets -- and scoffed at suggestions he was toughening his rhetoric in response to the criticism.
He suggested Iran's leaders will face consequences if they continue "the threats, the beatingsand imprisonments" against protesters. But he repeatedly declined to say what actions the U.S.might take, retaining -- for now -- the option of pursuing diplomatic engagement with Iran'sleaders over its suspected nuclear weapons program.
"We don't know yet how this thing is going to play out," the president said. "It is not too late forthe Iranian government to recognize that there is a peaceful path that will lead to stability andlegitimacy and prosperity for the Iranian people. We hope they take it." Obama borrowedlanguage from struggles throughout history against oppressive governments to condemn theefforts by Iran's rulers to crush dissent in the wake of June 12 presidential elections. Citing thesearing video circulated worldwide of the apparent shooting death of Neda Agha Soltan, a26-year-old young woman who bled to death in a Tehran street and now is a powerful symbol forthe demonstrators, Obama said flatly that human rights violations were taking place.
"No iron fist is strong enough to shut off the world from bearing witness to peaceful protests ofjustice," he said during a nearly hourlong White House news conference dominated by the unrestin Iran. "Those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history." The eighthextended news conference of Obama's presidency also veered into the intricacies of the healthcare reform debate, the effectiveness of the economic stimulus package and a revealing personalmoment in which he acknowledged he still is an occasional smoker despite trying to quit.
"I would say I'm 95 percent cured, but there are times where I mess up," the president said theday after signing an anti-smoking bill into law. He said he doesn't smoke daily, nor does he lightup in front of his children.
The past 10 days in Iran have posed the strongest challenge to that nation's clerical rule sincethe system was established 30 years ago in the 1979 Islamic revolution. Before Tuesday, Obamamostly kept to a modulated response, calculating that, given Iranians' distrust of Americaninvolvement in their country, anything viewed as internal meddling from the White House woulddo the demonstrators more harm than good.
He also is deeply interested in preserving his promised policy concerning Iran and the threatits nuclear program poses: He contends the danger has only grown through decades of ruptureddiplomatic relations between the U.S. and Tehran, particularly in the past eight years underPresident George W. Bush, and it is time to try to change that by re-establishing direct talks.
But Obama has been taken to task by some Republicans, accused of being too passive. Even withIran's blackout of foreign press and attempted communications shutdowns, chaotic images of riotpolice beating and shooting protesters have seized the world's attention.
At least 17 people have been killed.
Last Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said: "The president of the United States issupposed to lead the free world, not follow it. He's been timid and passive more than I wouldlike." Obama chose a less cautious approach on Tuesday, more directly challenging Iran's leadersto ease off and holding out the possibility of consequences if they do not.
"The Iranian government should understand that how they handle the dissent within their owncountry, generated indigenously, internally, from the Iranian people, will help shape the tone,not only for Iran's future, but also its relationship to other countries," Obama said.
He made clear that one recent overture to Iran -- the authorization for U.S. embassies to inviteIranian officials to Independence Day parties -- was likely to disappear without changes."That's a choice the Iranians are going to have to make," Obama said.
With an array of U.S. sanctions already in place against Iran, there are few options at Obama'sdisposal other than withdrawing his offer to talk. Regardless, Obama said it's too early for him tobe more specific. "We are going to monitor and see how this plays itself out before we make anyjudgments about how we proceed," he said.
Answering a question from a Huffington Post writer that was solicited by the White House inadvance, Obama was plainer than ever that the protesters' beliefs that the election was stolenfrom opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi may be legitimate. The government declared anoverwhelming re-election victory for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and, while promising tolook into scattered reports of irregularities, has ruled out annulling those results.
"We can't say definitively what exactly happened at polling places throughout the country,"Obama said. "What we know is that a sizable percentage of the Iranian people themselves,spanning Iranian society, consider this election illegitimate. It's not an isolated instance, a littlegrumbling here or there. There is significant question about the legitimacy of the election." InObama's comments, there also was a notable shift away from previous respectful references toIran's most powerful cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as the "Supreme Leader." Obama didn't usethe term on Tuesday.
Asked if his stronger language was influenced by pressure from Republicans such as Grahamand Sen. John McCain, Obama scoffed: "What do you think?" And he shot back at GOP critics:"Only I'm the president of the United States." Advisers realize the new tone poses a risk that theU.S. president will become a scapegoat for Iran's leaders -- just what Obama has sought to avoid.
Administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe a sensitive strategy, saidthe disturbing images of the past few days warranted the tougher stance.
"I congratulate him for that, and we need to keep the pressure on them," House MinorityLeader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said after the news conference.
The president took the podium after a troublesome week for his five-month-old administration. Fellow Democrats are fretting about the jaw-dropping cost estimates of reforming health care, aseries of polls have underscored deep unease among independents and moderates over thesoaring deficit, and his overall approval rating -- while still high -- has been slipping.
Obama pushed lawmakers to deliver on his ambitious goals of overhauling health care andenergy, both in peril.
Also, acknowledging that the unemployment rate is going to climb over 10 percent, Obama saidhe's not satisfied with progress so far from the $787 billion economic stimulus plan passed inJanuary. He said aid must get out faster and some programs -- like one aimed at helping savesome homeowners from foreclosure -- need adjustment.
Still, asked if he would call for more stimulus spending, he said: "Not yet, because I think it'simportant to see how the economy evolves and how effective the first stimulus is." On healthcare, Obama left open the door to abandoning his demand that people under any revampedsystem have the option of choosing coverage from a government-funded program.
"We are still early in this process," he said. "So, you know, we have not drawn lines in the sandother than reform has to control costs and that it has to provide relief to people who don't havehealth insurance or are underinsured."