WASHINGTON – Democrats defended President Barack Obama's hands-off approach to the crisis in Iran, urging him to avoid leaving US "fingerprints" despite pressure from opposition Republicans for bolder US action.
Obama received an update on the situation in Iran during a 30-minute Oval Office session with his foreign policy advisers, an administration official said, but the White House issued no new statements.
According to Iranian state television, at least 17 people have been killed in a week of massive street protests unleashed since the disputed June 12 election returned hardline incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power.
The showdown in Tehran was a hot topic on weekend television talk shows in the United States, with Republicans criticizing Obama for timidity in the face of the most serious upheaval in Iran since its 1979 Islamic revolution.
The United States needs to be on the "right side of history" as concerns its response to the disputed elections and subsequent protests, said Senator John McCain, Obama's defeated opponent in the 2008 presidential election.
"The fine line is being dictated by the brutalities on the streets of Tehran and other cities," the Arizona Republican told CBS television.
"The United States hasn't done anything."
Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, said officials responsible for US clandestine operations had given assurances that they had not interfered in the Iranian elections or the ensuing protests.
"I don't think our intelligence candidly is that good," she told CNN.
"I think it's a very difficult country in which to collect intelligence right now. So I think our ability to get in there and change the course of human events is very low, to be very candid with you."
Iranian leaders blamed meddling by the United States and Britain for a week of post-election unrest that has put its country's clerical leadership to an unprecedented test.
Iran's state television said at least 10 people were killed in unrest Saturday when security forces using tear gas and water cannons clashed with protesters. The deaths raised the official toll to at least 17 killed in the past week.
Iranian authorities reportedly detained a Newsweek journalist and expelled a BBC correspondent in latest moves to squeeze off foreign coverage.
In his strongest statement yet, Obama on Saturday called on the Iranian government to stop "all violent and unjust actions" against protesters but has refrained from more direct attacks on the regime.
McCain said that although he "appreciates" Obama's statement, other Western leaders, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have been more critical of the Iranian regime's handling of the elections and the protests.
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, told ABC television's "This Week" that Obama is "moving in the right direction" but has been too "timid and passive."
Feinstein and other Democrats, however, said Obama had struck the right balance between affirming the rights of protesters while staying out of an unfolding, unpredictable internal upheaval.
"It is very crucial, as I see it, that we not have our fingerprints on this. That this really be truly inspired by the Iranian people," Feinstein said.
"We don't know where this goes. And I sure wouldn't want to be responsible for thousands of people being killed, which is a distinct possibility."
Senator Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, said Obama "does not have the luxury of just thinking about the next couple of days. He's got to be able to think about the short-term, the long-term, tactical moves as well as long-term strategy."
Congress, Casey said, should give Obama authority to impose sanctions on Iran if necessary.
Obama has not, however, given up on his goal to engage Iran in a dialogue on its nuclear program and other issues.
Senator Richard Lugar, an influential Republican voice on foreign affairs, suggested that the protests may provide "a new opportunity" to hold talks with Iran, although he said holding talks with the regime now was "totally improbable."
The question of how to proceed has grown more complex, he told CNN, "because we don't know what the outcome of the challenge of the regime is going to be - and that is, who is going to be governing Iran? That's the question."
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