Obama: Iranian Voters' Voices Should Be Heard

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WASHINGTON -- With images of bloodied protesters in Tehran's streets recalling the Islamic revolution 30 years ago, President Barack Obama said the world is inspired by the outpouring of Iranian political dissent.

An inquiry into the disputed presidential electon should go ahead without violence, Obama said Monday. He added that he does not know who rightfully won the Iranian election, but that Iranians have a right to feel their ballots mattered.

A spokesman for Iran's Guardian Council said Tuesday it is ready to recount specific ballot boxes. The 12-member Guardian Council include clerics and experts in Islamic law.

U.S. Response 

Obama's remarks marked the most extensive U.S. response to Friday's voting, and appeared calculated to acknowledge the outpouring of dissent in Iran without claiming any credit.

"It would be wrong for me to be silent on what we've seen on the television the last few days," Obama told reporters at the White House.

He added, however, that "sometimes, the United States can be a handy political football."

The new American president is personally hugely popular in Iran, and all candidates in this year's surprisingly lively presidential election backed off on criticism of the United States. But the larger idea of the United States - and its world influence, backed by massive military power - remains highly divisive. Any candidate or popular movement seen to have the express backing of the United States would probably be doomed.

"What I would say to those people who put so much hope and energy and optimism into the political process, I would say to them that the world is watching and inspired by their participation, regardless of what the ultimate outcome of the election was," Obama said. "And they should know that the world is watching."

Shooting Erupts 

Iran's state radio said seven people died in shooting that erupted after people at an "unauthorized gathering" Monday night in western Tehran "tried to attack a military location."

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians streamed through the capital streets, and the fist-waving protesters denounced President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's claim to a landslide re-election. Standing on rooftops, pro-government gunmen opened fire on a group of protesters who had tried to storm the militia's compound.

Obama campaigned on a promise to extend a hand to the United States' main rival for influence in the Middle East, and the prospect of a different relationship with the United States was a constant, if largely unspoken, theme in the hardline Ahmadinejad's contest with a pro-reform challenger.

'Hardheaded Diplomacy' 

Obama was asked whether the violence had changed his outlook on the value of outreach to the clerical regime. While denouncing violence against demonstrators, Obama said he remains committed to what he called "tough, hardheaded diplomacy" with a nation that could soon possess nuclear weapons.

The United States has a broader interest in stopping Iran from developing those weapons or exporting terrorism, Obama said.

"We will continue to pursue a tough, direct dialogue between our two countries, and we'll see where it takes us," he said.

Nuclear Program 

The United States urged Iran on Monday to agree to a meeting with the six key nations trying to ensure that its nuclear program is peaceful.

U.S. deputy ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo told the U.N. Security Council that Iran has not responded to the request from the five permanent council members - the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France - and Germany for new talks, which would be the first international discussion on Iran's nuclear program since Obama took office in January.

"The United States remains committed to direct diplomacy with Iran to resolve issues of concern to the international community and will engage on the basis of mutual respect," DiCarlo said. "The United States will be a full participant in these discussions and we continue to urge Iran to accept this invitation."

DiCarlo's comments came hours after Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, urged Iran to "respond to the U.S. initiative with an equal gesture of goodwill and trust-building."

In remarks alongside Italy's premier on Monday, Obama called some of Ahmadinejad's past statements "odious," and did not mention the challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, by name. Ahmadinejad has said Israel should be "wiped from the map" and questioned the extent of Jewish extermination in the Holocaust.

Ahmadinejad's challenger claims he was robbed of the presidency and has called for the results to be canceled.

Obama did not go that far.

He said peaceful dissent should never be subject to violence, but that he had no way of knowing whether the results were valid. Obama noted that the United States had no election monitors in the country.

Iran Political Future 

He appealed to young Iranians, largely seen as determinative of Iran's political future over the coming five to 10 years. A quarter of the population of some 70 million is 15 years old or younger.

"I want them to know that we in the United States do not want to make any decisions for the Iranians, but we do believe that the Iranian people and their voices should be heard and respected," Obama said.  

Associated Press writers Philip Elliott and Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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Anne Gearan

Anne Gearan

AP National Security Writer

The Associated Press is the backbone of the world's information system serving thousands of daily newspaper, radio, television and online customers with coverage in all media and news in all formats. It is the largest and oldest news organization in the world, serving as a source of news, photos, graphics, audio and video.