President Obama unleashed his strongest criticism yet of Iran’s harsh handling of widespread protests of its presidential election, invoking the memory of Neda, the woman whose death at the hands of police has turned her into a martyr.
“The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days,” Obama said, speaking at just his fourth press conference since taking office.
In the wide-ranging Q&A, Obama admitted to sneaking a cigarette every now, promised that his ambitious and costly health care plan will not increase the deficit, gave Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke a vote of confidence and predicted double-digit unemployment.
But it was Iran that dominated the comments of the President. At one point, he cited “the searing image of a woman bleeding to death on the streets,” a clear reference to Neda Soldan, whose death was captured on video and circulated around the Internet. Asked if he had seen the graphic video which shows the woman dying from a gunshot, Obama nodded in the affirmative and called it “heartbreaking.”
Obama denied Tehran’s charges that the U.S. is meddling in its affairs, but said Iran must stop its violent repression of protesters.
“This is not about the United States or the West, but about the people of Iran,” Obama said. The Iranian people can speak for themselves, and that is what is happening.
The president has received criticism from some Republicans for toeing a cautious line on the elections that have sparked violence in Tehran. Aides have warned that a strong statement from the U.S. could undermine the opposition in Iran by injecting the U.S. as an enemy.
While Obama unequivocally condemned Tehran’s violent crackdown and media blackout, he was careful to leave the door open to a change in policy by Iran’s leadership.
“Obviously what’s happened in Iran is profound and we’re still waiting to see how it plays out,” he said. But, “it is not too late for the Iranian government to recognize that there is a peaceful path that will lead to stability and legitimacy and prosperity for the Iranian people.”
A correspondent from the Huffington Post relayed a question from a reader in Iran, asking what would prompt him to question the legitimacy of the election of hardline incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over reformer Mir Hossein Mousavi.
“There are significant questions about the legitimacy of this election,” Obama said. “But the ultimate consideration for the Iranian regime is legitimacy in the eyes of its own people, not in the eyes of the United States.”
Obama grew testy when, a day after he signed tough anti-tobacco legislation, a reporter asked him about his own habit.
“First of all, the new law that was put in place is not about me...I think it's fair to say...that you just think it's neat to ask me about my smoking, as opposed to it being relevant.
“Am I a daily smoker, a constant smoker? No...I would say I am 95% cured, but there are times when I mess up.”
As for the health care reform he is pushing, Obama vowed that any bill he eventually signs will not add to the already spiraling deficit, and promised that people happy with their care won’t have to change plans..
“This is obviously a complicated issue, but I’m very optimistic about the progress [Congress is] making,” Obama said. As for the costs, he said “we will find the money through savings and efficiencies in the health care system.”
Left unaddressed by the President and his questioners was the issue of North Korea, which has threatened to fire a missile toward Hawaii.