WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama on Tuesday abandoned the restrained tone he had maintained in recent days in discussing the unrest in Iran, opening a news conference by reading a statement loaded with charged words: “appalled” and “outraged,” “condemn” and “deplore.”
At the same time, the president and his aides made clear the administration still wants to engage with the Iranian government to achieve a deal that would resolve international concerns over Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Since the election crisis began, the president has sought to preserve his options for future dealings with the government, assuming it survives. While his rhetoric has sharpened, he has not called the June 12 election a fraud, refused to deal with the announced winner, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or spelled out sanctions Iran might face if it continues its crackdown on protesters. Obama has also been careful to avoid the appearance of meddling, even to the point of sidestepping all questions on Ahmadinejad’s legitimacy.
“We are going to monitor and see how this plays itself out before we make any judgments about how we proceed,” the president said Tuesday.
He reiterated that the United States has “core national security interests” at stake in Iran.
“We have provided a path whereby Iran can reach out to the international community, engage and become a part of international norms. It is up to them to make a decision as to whether they choose that path.”
Nevertheless, the president’s remarks appeared to mark a new phase in his response to the disputed election results.
“The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings and imprisonments of the last few days,” Obama said. “I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost.”
The White House posted a Farsi translation of the president’s remarks on its Web site, which it did not do over the weekend when the president issued a less emotional statement.
During the news conference, Obama noted that his previous comments had been twisted or deliberately mistranslated by official media.
“The United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is not interfering with Iran’s affairs,” Obama said.
“Some in Iran – some in the Iranian government, in particular – are trying to avoid that debate by accusing the United States and others in the West of instigating protests over the election. These accusations are patently false.”
Administration officials interviewed after the president’s news conference said the nuclear issue remains a central focus of Obama’s Iran policy, but they do not know how the election struggle will affect the administration’s efforts. The Iranian government has not responded officially to an offer made in April by the United States and its partners to reopen talks on suspending the nuclear program.
Iran has thousands of centrifuges spinning hot uranium gas into low-enriched nuclear fuel, which the government says is part of an entirely civilian nuclear-power program. But U.S. officials suspect that by year’s end, Iran may have enough of a stockpile to eventually convert it into enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear device.
Obama’s Republican critics have scorned the president’s rhetoric on Iran, saying it was too timid a response to the greatest popular challenge to the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution overthrew an authoritarian monarchy backed by the United States. Obama Tuesday dismissed any suggestion he had been influenced by the GOP criticism, saying he had been “very consistent.”
The president acknowledged the images of the violence has been personally affecting. Asked if he has seen the video posted on the Internet in recent days showing the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, an Iranian student, Obama said yes.
“It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “And I think that anybody who sees it knows that there’s something fundamentally unjust about that.”