WASHINGTON (AFP) — Iran's crackdown on protests prodded President Barack Obama into his most explicit warning yet to Tehran, while narrowing the options for his engagement strategy.
Obama has until now trod a delicate line, balancing sympathy with protestors against a desire to not give the Iranian government a chance to paint dissenters as treasonous tools of a hated foreign power.
As scenes of bleeding protestors in Tehran, openly challenging supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, filled US television news shows, Obama Saturday directly addressed Iranian leaders.
His statement blended moral, political and religious imagery, but stuck to his principle of not "meddling" in Iranian affairs, despite increasing pressure from domestic critics demanding a tougher tone.
"The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching," Obama said in a written statement.
"We mourn each and every innocent life that is lost. We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people.
"The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights."
"Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. The Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government."
This was his most forceful statement of a week in which Obama had argued that US "meddling" in Iran's internal affairs would backfire.
Obama, had repeatedly called for peaceful protests to be allowed in Iran.
"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice," Obama said, using a phrase from civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King Jr.
"I believe that. The international community believes that. And right now, we are bearing witness to the Iranian peoples' belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness," Obama said.
Significantly, in invoking "justice," Obama was also touching on a prominent theme of the Koran.
After coming to power vowing to engage US "enemies" including Iran, the disputed election and the crackdown have tested Obama.
On one hand, officials argued that Washington could do little more than watch and wait as Iranians charted their own political future following President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed victory over Mir Hossein Mousavi.
On the other, the president's cautious stance risked making him appear on the wrong side of history, as the demonstrations, unique since the Iranian revolution in 1979 gathered pace.
The National Iranian American Council, the largest organization of Iranian-Americans, said it supported Obama's decision not to take sides, "particularly in the absence of any candidate calling upon him to do so.
"At the same time, the White House needs to speak vociferously against the bloodshed taking place before our eyes," the group said in a statement.
Obama's foreign policy team also attempted to preserve the option of eventual negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.
"I think the president has been clear in underscoring and deploring the violence," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs on Friday.
"But ... we still have US interests on many issues including the one on nuclear weapons."
Since coming to office, Obama has tried to encourage dialogue, signaling he was not bent on "regime change". But following Saturday's violence and the new reported deaths, his task has become much tougher.
Obama's advisors have worked around the clock to make sense of events.
One official last week pointed to bags under his eyes as evidence of the midnight oil being burnt at the White House.
But the administration has been hampered by Washington's lack of diplomatic and economic relations with Iran. The quality of intelligence available to US policymakers is also unclear.
As violence erupted in Iran on Saturday, Obama received updates all day, and repeatedly met key advisors, an official said.
So far, Obama's statements have been less direct than some European allies: French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called the elections a "fraud".
One White House source said European states had greater room for maneuver, pointing out they did not share the tortured US history with Iran.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »