Obama Steps Up Rhetoric on Iran

President condemns "unjust actions" by Iran and defends tone of his comments.

June 23, 2009, 1:03 PM

June 23, 2009 — -- President Barack Obama today issued his strongest statement yet on the recent violence in Iran, deploring the loss of innocent civilian life and condemning what he called "unjust actions" taken by the government there.

"The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings and imprisonments of the last few days," he said at a White House press conference today. "I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost."

Obama defended his wide-ranging health care plan and said he is confident of passing health care reform, but he stopped short of saying that he would veto any health care plan that does not include the widely pilloried "public option" he has been pushing.

Amid criticism from Republicans who say he has not offered strong enough backing of the protests of the contested Iranian election, Obama today repeatedly stressed that the United States respects Iran's sovereignty and does not want to meddle in its affairs but acknowledged the "courage and dignity" of the Iranian people.

"We have seen the timeless dignity of tens of thousands Iranians marching in silence. We have seen people of all ages risk everything to insist that their votes are counted and their voices heard," he said. "Those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history."

Watch ABC News Primetime: 'Questions for the President -- Prescription for America,' Wednesday, June 24, at 10 p.m. ET

Obama said the video of the death of an Iranian woman named Neda Agha-Soltan was "heartbreaking" and that all who see it "knows that there's something fundamentally unjust about that."

He expressed concerns that peaceful demonstrators are discouraged from expressing their opinions out of fear of government retribution.

"I think it's important for us to make sure that -- that we let the Iranian people know that we are watching what's happening, that they are not alone in this process," he said.

Even with recent events, Obama remained open to talking to Iran's leaders, saying his administration is "still waiting to see how it plays itself out."

"What we've been saying 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," he said. "And the fact that they are now in the midst of an extraordinary debate taking place in Iran, you know, may end up coloring how they respond to the international community as a whole. We are going to monitor and see how this plays itself out before we make any judgments about how we proceed."

The president was non-committal about future steps with the rogue regime, which he has repeatedly suggested should engage in diplomacy with the West.

The president's opening remarks were carried live on Iranian Press TV, which is under state control.

Iran's state TV reported today that the country's top legislative authority, the Guardian Council, urged Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei today to extend the deadline for complaints by the defeated candidates, Reuters reported.

But the Guardian Council has rejected defeated candidate Mir Hossein's Mousavi request that the results be voided and a new election held.

Reuters also quoted Iranian TV as saying that the slain protester, Agha-Soltan was not shot by the government's security forces, and that the filming of the scene and the way it spread quickly over the Internet and foreign media suggested the incident was planned.

A man by the name of Caspian Makan, who said he was the fiance of Agha-Soltan, told BBC Persian TV that "she was near the area, a few streets away, and got out of the car for a few minutes when she was shot.

"The authorities are aware that everybody in Iran and throughout the whole world knows about her story. So that's why they didn't want a memorial service. They were afraid that lots people could turn up at the event. So as things stand now, we are not allowed to hold any gatherings to remember Neda," he said.

With most foreign reporters expelled from Iran by the government, there is little way to verify the authenticity of information coming out of the country. About 23 journalists have been jailed along with protestors.

Reports say the government is now also cracking down harder on technology, with twitter and other social media outlets becoming the main way for protestors to get their thoughts out to the world.

Confrontations Continue

Iran's feared Revolutionary Guards yesterday warned of a decisive confrontation if protesters come out. More than 1,000 people defied them Monday before security forces delivered on their threat.

"Police were beating protesters with batons and shooting into the air to scare them off," one Iranian dissident said by telephone.

On his Web site, opposition leader Mousavi urged the protesters on, writing that "protesting lies is your right." But he hasn't been seen in public for days, leaving opposition supporters disorganized.

Disagreement over the election extends to the highest levels of the Iranian government. On Sunday, the parliamentary speaker said the government should listen to the protesters' demands, after the supreme leader dismissed those concerns on Friday.

There are doubts about the election even among Iran's most senior clerics.

"The fact that the clerics have given the election no official recognition is significant. The regime is divided within," said Roger Cohen of the New York Times, one of a handful of western reporters still in Iran.

In the headlines of official newspapers and in public statements, Iranian leaders pointed to a foreign hand in the protests.

"Western powers and western media are spreading anarchy and vandalism," said Hassan Qashqavi, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman.

Mousavi's Web site called Monday for supporters to turn on their car lights in the late afternoon as a sign of protest.

A student leader in Iran told ABC News the opposition is planning to close the main Tehran bazaar Tuesday, shutting down many businesses. It would also have big symbolic importance.

Iran conceded Monday there were voting problems in as many as 50 cities, saying that the total number of votes in some of these areas outnumbered the number of eligible voters.

State-run Press TV reported on its Web site that as many as 3 million extra votes could have been cast, but according to a spokesman for Iran's Guardian Council, that would not be enough to affect the outcome of the controversial election in which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the winner.

But it is a potentially significant comedown for a regime that has dismissed all election fraud charges.

In the statement, the Guardian Council told demonstrators to "end the sabotage and rioting activities" and described the protests as a "conspiracy" against Iran.

Desperate to avoid a repeat of the weekend's violent clashes, the government flooded Tehran with police and paramilitary forces.

Across Tehran, hundreds of arrests have already been carried out.

Most significantly, police detained for a short time Faezeh Rafsanjani, the daughter of former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is Mousavi's chief political backer. She had joined protesters last week, urging them on. The BBC's John Leyne was expelled from the country.

The widening crackdown is a direct response to the deadly clashes that engulfed Tehran overnight Saturday, killing 19, according to state radio.

We spoke with one protester inside Iran who would not allow us to name her out of fear for her safety. She said the protests were for "changing the regime. That's what we're aiming for." Even as authorities continue to crack down hard on protests and the people involved in them, she said, "we're doing our best and if we get enough support it might happen."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.