Obama 'Deeply Troubled' By Iran Unrest

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President Obama said Monday he was "deeply troubled" by the violence in Iran following the presidential elections in that country. He also said the U.S. would continue to pursue tough, hard-headed diplomacy with Tehran. In another development, Obama announced that Italy had agreed to take three detainees from Guantanamo Bay.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

President Obama made his first comments today about the Iranian election and the violence that's ensued since President Ahmadinejad was declared the winner over reform candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Tens of thousands of Mousavi's supporters have protested in the streets and there have been some violent clashes with police in Tehran. President Obama reacted, talking with reporters in the Oval Office.

President BARACK OBAMA: I am deeply troubled by the violence that I've been seeing on television. I think that the democratic process, free speech, the ability of people to peacefully descent, all those are universal values and need to be respected.

SIEGEL: NPR's Don Gonyea joins us now from the White House. And Don, what did the president say about the allegations of vote fraud in Iran?

DON GONYEA: He was very careful, and I mean very careful. He did not pick sides in this. He said it's up to Iranians to pick their leaders. He said the U.S. can impose anything. He said that whatever he says would be a political football inside Iran. So he was acknowledging that quite openly.

But the other thing he said was that there were no U.S. election monitors on the ground, that there were no international election monitors and observers. So he said, we cannot say definitively what happened. He was pleased that the Iranians are proceeding with an investigation. He said he hopes that investigation can proceed with no further violence, no further bloodshed. He did though say of those protesting. He said those who had such hope for reform, he said they have a sense of betrayal. However this plays out, he said, they need to know that the world is watching them and has been inspired by them.

SIEGEL: Now, ever since he was a candidate, Mr. Obama has said that the U.S. should engage Iran. Do the events of the past few days change that?

GONYEA: They do not change that. In fact - give a listen to the president, again, this was tonight in the Oval Office.

Pres. OBAMA: I've always believed that as odious as I consider some of President Ahmadinejad's statements, as deep as the differences that exist between the United States and Iran on a range of core issues, that the use of tough, hard-headed diplomacy - diplomacy with no illusions about Iran and the nature of the differences between our two countries - is critical when it comes to pursuing a core set of our national security interests.

GONYEA: And again, he said those national security interests include the fact that there cannot be a nuclear-armed Iran. He says we don't want to see a nuclear arms race in the region. And we can't be in a position where Iran is able to continue exporting terrorism and help the terrorist.

SIEGEL: Don, on other matters, the president was meeting with Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, and Italy has agreed to take three detainees from Guantanamo. Was that expected?

GONYEA: It was not a total surprise. We had heard in recent days that they might take two Tunisian prisoners from the detention center at Guantanamo. Turns out, it is three. And one thing the president said is that this can be a framework that the rest of Europe can look to in terms of taking Gitmo detainees.

There have been talks already underway with the European Union. And it's like a trickle - continues, maybe grows a bit, because we've already had Britain, France and Sweden agree to take one or two. Bermuda has and there are talks with Germany as well.

SIEGEL: Also, the president reacted, I gather, to the speech about the Middle East peace process that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu made over the weekend.

GONYEA: Right. The speech is getting a mix reviews from commentators. He said, let's not look at commentators to judge the speech. He called it progress on the part of Prime Minister Netanyahu. He said he mentioned the two-state solution albeit with conditions, but he said it's a good step forward.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Don.

GONYEA: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: NPR's Don Gonyea at the White House.

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