WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Saturday challenged Iran's government to halt a "violent and unjust" crackdown on dissenters, using his bluntest language yet to condemn Tehran's postelection response.
Obama has sought a measured reaction to avoid being drawn in as a meddler in Iranian affairs. Yet his comments have grown more pointed as the clashes intensified, and his latest remarks took direct aim at Iranian leaders.
"We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people," Obama said in a written statement. "The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights."
Obama has searched for the right tone in light of political pressures on all sides. On Capitol Hill, Congress pressed him to condemn the Iranian government's response. In Iran, the leadership was poised to blame the U.S. for interference and draw Obama in more directly.
Obama met with advisers at the White House as developments in Iran grew more ominous, with police seen beating protesters.
"Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away," the president said, recalling a theme from the speech he gave in Cairo, Egypt, this month.
"The Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government," Obama said. "If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion."
Obama's comments came as protesters outside the White House waved Iranian flags and denounced Iranian government efforts to suppress the protesters.
Protesters in Iran have demanded that government cancel and rerun the June 12 elections that ended with a declaration of overwhelming victory for hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi says he won and claimed widespread fraud.
Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said there was no ballot rigging. He warned of a crackdown if protesters continued their massive street rallies.
Then on Saturday, police in Iran beat protesters and fired tear gas and water cannons at thousands who rallied in open defiance of Iran's clerical government. Witnesses described fierce clashes after some 3,000 protesters chanted "Death to the dictator!" and "Death to dictatorship!" in downtown Tehran.
Obama's criticism came one day after both houses of Congress voted overwhelmingly to condemn the actions by the Iranian government against demonstrators and moves to interfere with Internet and cell phone communications. That was seen in part as a veiled criticism of Obama's response, too.
The president already was on record as saying the United States stood behind those who were seeking justice in a peaceful way. He responded to critics that he hadn't been forceful enough in support of protesters, telling CBS News: "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. That's what they do."
That was Friday, before the conflict in Iran appeared to deepen.
Obama has refrained from passing final judgment on the underlying question of the legitimacy of the election itself, although he has expressed "deep concerns" about it.
The president returned Saturday to his theme that the world is watching the way the Iranian government responds.
Obama cited Martin Luther King's statement that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
"I believe that," the president said. "The international community believes that. And right now, we are bearing witness to the Iranian people's belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness."
Police clashed with protesters around Tehran immediately after the presidential election and gunfire from a militia compound left at least seven dead, but further force remained in check until Saturday's developments.
The National Iranian American Council, a leading organization of Iranian-Americans in the U.S., called for new elections while demanding an end to the violence "against unarmed protesters and bystanders."
"The only plausible way to end the violence is for new elections to be held with independent monitors ensuring its fairness," the group said in a statement. "Such elections would be consistent with the Iranian constitution."