President Barack Obama says he does not want to become a scapegoat for Iran's leadership amid that country's postelection upheaval, but Republicans are nevertheless saying the new president is being too cautious.
"The last thing that I want to do is to have the United States be a foil for those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States," Obama said in an interview broadcast Monday on CBS television's "The Early Show."
"We shouldn't be playing into that," he said in the interview, which was recorded Friday.
He told Pakistan's Dawn newspaper, in an interview published Sunday, that the United States has no way of knowing whether the disputed Iranian election 10 days ago was fair or not. Iranians should be able to peacefully protest the results in any case, Obama said.
Echoing that view Monday was James Steinberg, the deputy secretary of state. He told reporters that the Obama administration is concerned about the violence in Iran but believes the election outcome is for Iranians to decide.
"We think it's very important that if this is an issue for the Iranians to decide that all the voices should be heard, that the process should be fair and that the people should be allowed to express their opinions," Steinberg said.
The Pakistani newspaper interview was done last week. Obama said nothing about the crisis in public on Sunday, although a spokesman said he discussed Iran with foreign policy advisers in the Oval Office for more than 30 minutes. He later went golfing in Virginia.
Tehran's streets were mostly quiet on Sunday for the first time since the bitterly disputed June 12 presidential election, but cries of "God is great" and "Death to the dictator" echoed from rooftops after nightfall.
Iran's Revolutionary Guard, the country's most powerful military force, on Monday ordered demonstrators to "end the sabotage and rioting activities" and threatened to crush any further opposition protests.
The official death toll from the week of demonstrations stands at 17.
"The president of the United States is supposed to lead the free world, not follow it," Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, said Sunday. "He's been timid and passive more than I would like."
Sen. John McCain, a Republican and others noted that Western leaders, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have demanded a recount or more forcefully condemned the government crackdown.
"I'd like to see the president be stronger than he has been, although I appreciate the comments that he made yesterday," McCain said. "I think we ought to have America lead."
Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican, said a slow or muted U.S. response risks undermining the aspirations of Iranian voters to change or question their government.
'Do we really believe in our principles?'
"If America stands for democracy and all of these demonstrations are going on in Tehran and other cities over there, and people don't think that we really care, then obviously they're going to question, 'Do we really believe in our principles?'" Grassley said.
Like other Democrats who spoke Sunday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein backed the president's approach.
"It is very crucial, as I see it, that we not have our fingerprints on this," she said, "that this really be ... truly inspired by the Iranian people. We don't know where this goes."
Sen. Richard Lugar, a moderate Republican who holds the party's top position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, seemed to echo Obama's caution.
"The challenge continues, which is going to come to a conclusion one way or another," Lugar said. "Either the protesters bring about change or they're suppressed, and it's a potentially very brutal outcome at the end of the day."
Obama's defenders say his measured response speaks up for human rights while preserving U.S. options and lessening the chance that he becomes a scapegoat for the cleric-led government, which has blamed the West for stirring up street protests that turned into bloody clashes with police and militia.