GOP Wants Harsher Tone Toward Iran

President Obama has chosen his words carefully in reacting to the massive street demonstrations and violence that have taken place in Iran since last week's disputed presidential election. He's walking a fine line — condemning the crackdown but not declaring the election illegitimate. Republicans in Congress say a more forceful reaction is warranted.

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And President Obama continues to choose his words carefully about the outpouring of protest in Iran. He's walking a fine line, condemning the crackdown while not saying that the election is illegitimate. Republicans in Congress would like to see a much more forceful reaction, which they say is warranted.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: The president's words could hardly be more measured. Here he is yesterday in the Rose Garden, where Mr. Obama said he has deep concerns about the Iranian election.

President BARACK OBAMA: I do believe that something has happened in Iran where there is - there is a questioning of the kinds of antagonistic postures towards the international community that have taken place in the past, and that there are people who want to see greater openness and greater debate, and want to see greater democracy.

GONYEA: And even while he strongly supported the right of the people to voice their descent, he stopped short of saying he supports the Iranian demonstrators' claims that the election was stolen.

President OBAMA: How that plays out over the next several days and several weeks is something ultimately for the Iranian people to decide, but I stand strongly with the universal principle that people's voices should be heard and not suppressed.

GONYEA: For the president's critics, such language falls short. Among the first to say so, Mr. Obama's opponent in last year's election, Senator John McCain, who spoke on NBC's "Today Show" yesterday.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): He should speak out that this is a corrupt, flawed, sham of an election. The Iranian people have been deprived of their rights. We support them in their struggle against a repressive, oppressive regime, and they should not be subjected to four more years of Ahmadinejad and the radical Muslim clerics.

GONYEA: Other Republicans joined in the critique. Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina said President Obama seems intent on finding a way to negotiate over the nuclear arms issue with a government that can't be trusted.

Senator JIM DEMINT (Republican, South Carolina): There's a lot more we could do to put pressure on them that we're not doing. I think the president is saying that his rhetoric is not very powerful in the Middle East. It's going to take some decisive action, and we have yet to see that.

GONYEA: DeMint suggests an immediate push for tough sanctions, freezing Iran's financial assets around the world.

Senator DEMINT: And I think the global community will work with us, but not if they know we're a paper tiger.

GONYEA: But Iran specialist Suzanne Maloney, who worked in the State Department during the Bush presidency, says what's happening in Iran is a result of internal Iranian politics, and there's nothing the U.S. can do to impose a solution.

Ms. SUZANNE MALONEY (Iran Specialist, Brookings Institution): It's unclear what sort of a positive impact that could possibly have on the ground in Iran, but trying to insert ourselves in the middle of what is very much an Iranian battle for power, and battle for freedom, would really only work to the disadvantage of those we would be trying to help.

GONYEA: Maloney, now with the Brookings Institution, says the government's suppression of the demonstrations does create political problems for President Obama, potentially making it harder to engage in formal diplomatic dialogue with Iran on the nuclear arms issue.

Ms. MALONEY: I think he's going to have much more intense skepticism on the Hill, much more intense skepticism from allies like Israel, who have been doubtful of Iran's capacity to engage in serious concessions - or even serious negotiations. And I think he faces an open question about the legitimacy and credibility of negotiating with a regime which has demonstrated so little regard for its own people.

GONYEA: For now, President Obama is paying little attention to his Republican critics. Instead, he, too, is watching for clues and waiting with the rest of the world to see how this sudden and unexpected crisis inside Iran plays out.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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