WASHINGTON - Republicans intensified their criticism of President Barack Obama's handling of his first major test of international leadership, saying Sunday that he has been too cautious in response to Iran's postelection upheaval.
"The president of the United States is supposed to lead the free world, not follow it," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "He's been timid and passive more than I would like."
But in an interview released Sunday, Obama argued: "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. We shouldn't be playing into that."
The president spoke Friday during an interview with CBS News' Harry Smith. It will be broadcast Monday on "The Early Show."
He told Pakistan's Dawn newspaper, in an interview published Sunday, that the United States has no way of knowing whether the disputed Iranian election 10 days ago was fair or not. Iranians should be able to peacefully protest the results in any case, Obama said.
That interview was also done last week. Obama said nothing about the crisis in public on Sunday, although a spokesman said he discussed Iran with foreign policy advisers in the Oval Office for more than 30 minutes. He later went golfing in Virginia.
Tehran's streets fell mostly quiet for the first time since a bitterly disputed June 12 presidential election, but there were reports that government forces appeared to be pressing arrests of defiant protesters after the official death toll swelled to at least 17.
The White House did not book any surrogates on the Sunday talk shows to defend or explain the administration's approach. Republicans used their broadcast appearances to call the president timid or feckless, while the Democrat who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee said the U.S. had no hand in the disputed election.
Like other Democrats who spoke Sunday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein backed the president's approach.
"It is very crucial as I see that we not have our fingerprints on this," she said, "that this really be ... truly inspired by the Iranian people. We don't know where this goes."
A day earlier, Obama invoked the American civil rights struggle to condemn violence against demonstrators, some of whom have carried signs in English asking, "Where is My Vote?"
It was his strongest statement on what has become the most significant challenge to Iran's ruling structure since the Islamic revolution 30 years ago, but it stopped short of demanding a recount or new election, as many of the demonstrators seek.
He avoided mentioning either incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or his principal challenger by name, and said nothing about his oft-repeated campaign promise of a fresh start in diplomatic talks with the main U.S. adversary in the Middle East.
Obama's defenders say his measured response speaks up for human rights while preserving U.S. options and lessening the chance that he becomes a scapegoat for the cleric-led government, which has blamed the West for stirring up street protests that turned into bloody clashes with police and militia.
Obama has tried to hold a middle ground as the crisis unfolds, and found the ground shifting by the day. His advisers say any thunderous denunciation of Iran's rulers would invite them to cry interference and might worsen the violence instead of end it.
Both the House and Senate voted overwhelmingly last week to condemn an official crackdown on the mostly peaceful demonstrations, a stronger action than the White House has yet taken.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others noted that Western leaders, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have demanded a recount or more forcefully condemned the government crackdown.
"I'd like to see the president be stronger than he has been, although I appreciate the comments that he made yesterday," McCain said. "I think we ought to have America lead."
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said a slow or muted U.S. response risks undermining the aspirations of Iranian voters to change or question their government.
"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.
Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, a moderate Republican who holds the party's top position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, seemed to echo Obama's caution.
"The challenge continues, which is going to come to a conclusion one way or another," Lugar said. "Either the protesters bring about change or they're suppressed, and it's a potentially very brutal outcome at the end of the day."
Obama on Saturday challenged Iran's government to halt a "violent and unjust" crackdown on dissenters, and he quoted Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
"Right now, we are bearing witness to the Iranian people's belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness," Obama said.
The statement calling for an end to violence against demonstrators followed days of agonizing among his staff over what to say and how strongly to say it.
It also followed Obama's remark last week that he said he saw little difference between Ahmadinejad, the hard-liner who claims a landslide re-election mandate, and his conservative but pro-reform challenger. That upset some Iranian activists in the United States and others who said Obama left the impression that he discounted the votes of Mir Hossein Mousavi's supporters or the bravery of protesters who marched to say their votes were stolen.
Ahmadinejad claimed victory by an overwhelming margin following a lively campaign that many analysts predicted would yield razor-close results. The speed with which his victory was announced and vote claims in areas where he was at a clear disadvantage outraged Mousavi's backers.
Democrats in the Senate say Obama has struck the right balance.
"He's got a very delicate path to walk here," said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. "You don't want to take ownership of this."
Dodd and Graham appeared on ABC's "This Week," McCain was on CBS' "Face the Nation," and Feinstein, Lugar and Grassley spoke on "State of the Union" on CNN.
Associated Press writer Steven R. Hurst contributed to this report.
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