Obama urges international support for Iran protesters

President Obama on Sunday called for the international community to stand behind Iranian protesters angry at the outcome of that nation's disputed election.

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"We respect Iran’s sovereignty, but we also are witnessing peaceful demonstrations, people expressing themselves, and I stand for that universal principle that people should have a voice in their own lives and their own destiny," Obama said in an interview with an English-language newspaper in Pakistan.

"And I hope that the international community recognizes that we need to stand behind peaceful protests and be opposed to violence or repression."

Obama spoke out as Republicans used the Sunday morning talk shows to criticize the president for not speaking out more forcefully against Iran's government.

"I believe that we could be more forceful than we have," Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said on CNN's "State of the Union." "We've been involved in the Philippines, in Bosnia, several other countries over the last several years and actually being very forceful in promoting democracy. 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?"

"Wherever there's opportunity to promote democracy, it seems to me we ought to be in the forefront of that promotion, particularly when it comes from the grassroots demonstration that the people really want the ballot box to work and people to be elected honestly as opposed to what looks like a charade that went on last weekend in Iran," Grassley added.

The president has been reluctant to get too involved in the conflict over concerns U.S. intervention could de-legitimize the protests. Iran's government already has accused the U.S. of fomenting unrest.

Still, Obama has slowly ratcheted up the administration's involvement, issuing a written statement Saturday and directly commenting on Sunday.

In the interview with Dawn newspaper, the Pakistani-based media outlet, Obama said the United States should stand behind peaceful protests aimed at demanding freedom and open government.

"What’s clear is that the Iranian people are wanting to express themselves. And it is critical, as they seek justice and they seek an opportunity to express themselves, that that’s respected and not met with violence," the president said.

Iranian media reported at least ten people had died in clashes on Saturday, likely bringing the death toll north of 20. Some reports suggested government helicopters were dropping an acid-like substance on protesters, while a video showing a young woman described as a bystander dying after being shot came to signify the individual tragedy and widespread chaos.

Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the challenger the government said lost the election in a landslide, has said he is prepared to be martyred for the cause of democracy. Meanwhile, reports indicate several family members of reformist cleric Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has been vocal in his opposition to the incumbent government, were taken into custody Sunday.

Republicans said the United States should encourage the revolt, which several compared to other recent uprisings against dictatorial regimes in Ukraine, Czechoslovakia and Poland.

"This is a human rights issue. This is an issue about whether people can demonstrate and disagree with their government without being killed in the streets," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), author of a Senate resolution condemning the Iranian government's crackdown.

"I'm not for sending arms. I'm not for fomenting violence, nothing except to say that America's position in the world is one of moral leadership. And that's what America is all about," McCain said on CBS's "Face the Nation".

Republicans hold out hope that Obama will involve the U.S. more directly in the conflict, something the president has a greater authority to do than many of his predecessors would have.

Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview on Fox News Sunday that Obama "prepared himself" to deal with the situation in Iran by reaching out to the nation of Islam with his speech in Cairo, Egypt. Now, Hoekstra said, Obama "has to use that credibility" to influence what's happening in Iran.

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"He's certainly moving in the right direction, but our point is that there is a monumental event going on in Iran, and you know, the president of the United States is supposed to lead the free world, not follow it," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos."

Several senators said Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who sided against the protesters and in favor of the outcome that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won re-election, had over-reached.

"I think we're seeing a challenge of the regime. The leader, Khamenei, perhaps made a grievous error," said Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in an appearance on CNN. "He could have called for another election or for reforms or various other things."

Democrats have largely maintained solidarity with the White House, though House Foreign Relations Committee chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.) co-authored the House version of a resolution offering support to the protesters with Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.). Only one member in the House voted against the resolution.

The chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said she was not aware of any efforts to instigate protests or tamper with the Iranian election on the part of the U.S.

"To the best of my knowledge, there has been no interference with the election, there has been no manipulation of people following the election," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who heads the intelligence panel, said on CNN. "By blaming the United States and Great Britain, the regime is trying to take the responsibility from its own shoulders and clearly I think most people see that the responsibility belongs on those shoulders, not ours."

But, Feinstein conceded, the U.S.'s ability to influence events on the ground in Iran could be compromised by the intelligence community's lack of assets in the Islamic republic.

"I don't think our intelligence candidly is that good. 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," Feinstein said.

McCain and others said the U.S. has contributed in some measure, as Iranian protesters have used social networking sites to communicate, coordinate and get information to media outlets around the world.

"We gave them Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and they are communicating in an incredible fashion, and it's unbelievable, the spread of information that's going on," McCain said. "If I might say, I'm very proud that these are American technologies that they're using to such incredible effect. It's a wonderful thing to see."

-- Sam Youngman contributed to this article.