US President Barack Obama staked out his toughest stance yet on Iran on Tuesday, expressing outrage over a government crackdown and a “heartbreaking” video of a woman bleeding to death during a street protest.
Obama, speaking at a White House news conference, also for the first time appeared to suggest that his strategy of offering negotiations with longtime US foe Iran may depend on the end-game of the crisis.
“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, stiffening his rhetoric on the crisis.
“I strongly condemn these unjust actions and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost,” he said.
Obama came to power in January offering dialogue with US foes, including Iran, which former US president George W. Bush largely refused to engage.
“We’re still waiting to see how it plays itself out,” Obama said of the current crisis.
“My position coming into this office has been that the United States has core national security interests in making sure that Iran doesn’t possess a nuclear weapon and it stops exporting terrorism outside of its borders,” he said.
“What we’ve been seeing over the last several days, the last couple of weeks, obviously is not encouraging, in terms of the path that this regime may choose to take,” Obama said.
He said he was not interfering in Iranian affairs, as alleged by the Tehran government, but said he had to “bear witness to the courage and dignity of the Iranian people.”
He was asked specifically about graphic footage of the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, a bystander apparently shot in the chest who died on the street, which has spread around the Internet as a symbol of the post-election uprising.
“It’s heartbreaking, and I think that anybody who sees it knows that there’s something fundamentally unjust about that,” Obama said.
“I think that when a young woman gets shot on the street when she gets out of her car, that’s a problem,” he said.
Some Republicans, including election rival John McCain, have accused Obama of being timid and too slow to embrace the protests sparked by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed win over Mir Hossein Mousavi.
But he hit back: “Only I’m the president of the United States … in the hothouse of Washington, there may be all kinds of stuff going back and forth in terms of Republican critics versus the administration.”
“That’s not what is relevant to the Iranian people,” Obama said.
McCain said later on CNN that he agreed “there’s only one president,” but defended his right to speak out.
“Many of us who have had long years of experience on these issues not only have the right to speak out, but we have the obligation to speak out on behalf of people who are being oppressed,” he said.
McCain accused Obama of not sticking up for American values.
“The president saying that we didn’t want to be perceived as meddling, is, frankly, not what America’s history is all about,” he said.
Earlier, a key committee in the US House of Representatives voted to target Tehran’s gasoline imports and its domestic energy sector by prohibiting the US Export-Import Bank from helping companies that export gasoline to Iran or support its production at home.
The US State Department also said US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed the situation in Iran by telephone with her French, British and German counterparts, but provided no details on the talks.