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POLITICS-US: Obama "Appalled" by Iran Repression

Khody Akhavi and Ali Gharib

WASHINGTON, Jun 23 2009 (IPS) - Facing a growing chorus of Republican criticism to speak out more forcefully on Iran’s disputed election results, the U.S. president made his harshest statement yet Tuesday, condemning Iran’s leadership for its violent crackdown on protesters.

Barack Obama told a White House news conference that the U.S. and international community was “appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings, and imprisonments over the past few days.”

Obama also called on Iran to accept the “universal right to assembly and free speech” if it wanted to be respected by the international community.

The president’s sharp language came on the same day Republicans in the U.S. Congress succeeded in adding a measure to a budget bill which would cut off U.S. loan guarantees for some companies doing business with Iran.

The amendment, introduced by Mark Kirk, a Republican member of the House of Representatives, made its way into a 2010 House appropriations bill which provides funding for the U.S. State Department and its foreign operations.

The efforts by Kirk, who is close to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most influential organisation among pro-Israel lobby groups in Washington, could draw the Congress deeper into the debate over how to respond to post-election violence in Iran.

But how to engage Iran and under what terms appear to be issues the Obama administration wants debated exclusively within the White House and State Department.

On Tuesday, Obama maintained that his administration had been consistent on its statement with regards to Iran. But he also re-iterated that the U.S. did not want to be viewed as meddling in the country’s internal affairs.

Obama also called long-running allegations by the Iranian government of U.S. and foreign interference “patently false and absurd”.

“They are an obvious attempt to distract people from what is truly taking place within Iran’s borders,” he said.

“This tired strategy of using old tension to scapegoat other countries won’t work anymore in Iran. This is not about the United States and the West; this is about the people in Iran, and the future that they – and only they – will choose,” he added.

Obama’s comments came as Iran’s Guardian Council, which vets election results, rejected opposition demands Tuesday for a rerun of the presidential race. Iran’s official state news agency also quoted a senior judiciary official as saying a special court has been established to try detained protesters.

Iran also expelled two British diplomats, in the wake of harsh statements made by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, at last week’s Friday prayers, where he described Britain’s government as “most evil”.

In response, the British expelled two Iranian diplomats. It has also announced it has frozen around one billion pounds (1.64 billion dollars) in Iranian government assets.

Khamenei also warned protesters of consequences should the protests continue in the capital and across the country. Eleven days of demonstrations and street violence in the wake of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election at the polls has brought about unprecedented opposition and a very public split within the country’s clerical establishment.

There were reports that members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Basij paramilitary group, and other security forces have been deployed in the streets and major squares of Tehran, in order to quell protests and stop any public gatherings.

On Tuesday, Obama described the events in Iran as “profound”, but said he would not discuss possible consequences for the country’s leadership because “we don’t know yet how this will play out.”

“I know everyone here is on the 24 hour news cycle,” he said to the reporters in the room. “I’m not.”

When asked whether this stronger language was in response to Republican leaders’ criticism that the president was being too timid, Obama said, “frankly, a lot of [Iranians] aren’t paying attention to what is being said on Capitol Hill.”

Obama’s approach to crisis has also drawn praise from some former George W. Bush administration officials.

“I believe that Obama has handled this crisis superbly,” said Nicholas Burns, who was undersecretary of state for political affairs under Bush.

“[Obama’s] statements became progressively stronger with events,” he said during a forum at the Washington-based Carnegie endowment for International Peace Tuesday, adding that criticism of Obama amounted to a “right-wing partisan attack”.

Obama said the U.S. would continue to advance its national security interests, and would not be used as a tool to be exploited by other countries.

But what happens in the Congress could potentially undermine Obama’s efforts to engage Iran over its disputed nuclear programme, which the U.S. and its allies suspect is aimed at producing weapons. Iran says its programme is for peaceful purposes.

The House of Representatives and Senate overwhelmingly adopted separate and symbolic resolutions last week supporting protesters in Iran. But the amendment introduced by Kirk, and which made its way into a House appropriations bill, would block the U.S. Export-Import Bank from extending loan guarantees to companies that supply refined petrol to Iran. “While the practical impact of this amendment is likely to be negligible, its approval now would give the government of Iran a new tool to use in its efforts to suppress dissent in Iran,” said Jim Fine, of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Washington- based peace lobby group. “The government of Iran will portray the amendment as punitive new sanctions aimed directly at the Iranian people and fresh evidence of hostile U.S. intent justifying tighter government control,” said Fine in a statement released Tuesday.

In a Congressional Quarterly report, Kirk was quoted as saying, “Our amendment is a go because AIPAC supports it,” referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which backs the measure.

But some analysts say the legislation, which is a long way from actually being implemented, only hurts the opposition movement in Tehran and bolsters Khamenei and his allies.

“What you’re doing is helping the forces that we actually oppose,” said Keith Weissman, an expert on Iranian-American affairs, who also used to work for AIPAC.

“Because of the unrest and the uncertainty, why do you want to make the job of the authorities and the regime easier,” he said.

“Dialogue and rapprochement are concepts that mean very little today,” he added.

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