WASHINGTON – U.S. President Barack Obama has defended his handling of the upheaval in Iran as his Republican foes ramped up their criticism of his response, saying he’s been too timid and 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 “The Early Show” on CBS.
“That’s what they do. That’s what we’ve already seen. We shouldn’t be playing into that … this is not an issue of the United States or the West versus Iran. This is an issue of the Iranian people.”
The interview, taped on Friday, was aired as more violence erupted in Iran. Following through on a vow to crush any further protests, riot police attacked hundreds of demonstrators with tear gas and fired live bullets in the air to break up a rally in Tehran.
Britain, which has been accused by Iran of stirring up post-election discord, started evacuating the families of diplomats and other officials stationed in the country.
The official death toll after a week of demonstrations stands at 17, the most notable being the shooting death of a young woman, Neda Soltani, who has become an international symbol of the violence.
Obama’s Republican critics were out in full force over the weekend, accusing him of failing to show leadership on the unrest in Iran.
“The president of the United States is supposed to lead the free world, not follow it,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a member of the Armed Services Committee.
He accused the president of being “timid and passive.”
Graham’s close friend, Senator John McCain, said other world leaders have been far more assertive in condemning the crackdown on protesters, including France’s Nicholas Sarkozy and Germany’s Angela Merkel.
“I’d like to see the president be stronger than he has been … I think we ought to have American lead,” McCain said.
Senator Chuck Grassley said a slow or muted U.S. response sends the wrong signal to the rest of the world.
“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.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has delivered what’s considered one of the West’s most forceful condemnations, calling Iran’s behaviour “unacceptable” and urging it to respect human rights and democracy.
In an interview published over the weekend with Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, Obama said the U.S. has no way of knowing whether the Iranian election on June 12 was fairly won.
“But beyond the election, what’s clear is that the Iranian people are wanting to express themselves. And it is critical, as they seek justice and they seek an opportunity to express themselves, that that’s respected and not met with violence,” he said.
Despite the attacks from prominent Republicans, some conservative commentators have defended Obama’s handling of the crisis over the past few days.
“It seems to me foolish criticism,” said conservative columnist George Will. “The people on the streets know full well what the American attitude toward the regime is. And they don’t need that reinforced.”
The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan also recently chastised Obama’s critics.
“To insist the American president, in the first days of the rebellion, insert the American government into the drama was shortsighted and mischievous,” she wrote.
“The ayatollahs were only too eager to demonize the demonstrators as mindless lackeys of the Great Satan Cowboy Uncle Sam, or whatever they call us this week.”
Republican strategist Karen Hanretty agreed.
“I’m one of the Republicans who does not agree with John McCain on this,” she said on Fox News.
“I think the president is taking a very nuanced approach to this. I think that that is a very wise thing for him to do. Look, this is the Iranians’ revolution. America, like it or not, is not very popular in the Middle East.”