AFP - US President Barack Obama said Monday that he was "deeply troubled" by violence in Iran, but warned he did not want the United States to become a "political football" in the post-election crisis.
In his first public comments since the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Obama called on Iranian leaders to respect free speech and democracy after the reported death of an opposition protestor in Iran.
He also vowed that despite the violence and doubts over the probity of the polls, he would stick by his pledge to pursue "tough, hard headed" diplomacy with "no illusions" with Iran on issues including its nuclear program.
Walking a fine political line, Obama hinted at the limits of US influence in the crisis, saying he wanted to be "very clear" that "it is up to Iranians to make a decision about who Iran's leaders will be."
"We respect Iranian sovereignty and want to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran," Obama said, adding that in the past, America had become a "political football" in the domestic politics of its arch-foe.
But Obama also added that he was "deeply troubled" by the violence he had been seeing in television news broadcasts from Tehran.
"I think that the democratic process, free speech, the ability for folks to peacefully dissent, all those are universal values and need to be respected," Obama told reporters after meeting Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
"Whenever I see violence perpetrated on people who are peacefully dissenting, and whenever the American people see that, I think they're rightfully troubled."
But Obama said he was committed to his plan to offer a diplomatic opening to Iran, and to discuss the country's nuclear program, despite finding the anti-Jewish rhetoric of Ahmadinejad "odious."
"The use of tough, hard-headed diplomacy, diplomacy with no illusions about Iran and the nature of the differences between our two countries is critical when it comes to pursuing a core set of our national security interests," Obama said.
Some analysts have said it will be much harder for Obama to politically sell his proposals for talks with Iran on its nuclear program, with Ahmadinejad, who has frequently denied the Nazi Holocaust, continuing as president.
Obama has established a soft deadline of the end of this year to see whether talks with Iran are bearing fruit, and has warned of tough sanctions if Tehran does not abandon what Washington says is the pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The US president spoke after a protestor was reportedly shot dead Monday as one of Iran's worst crises since the Islamic revolution of 1979 intensified, with the opposition's supporters vigorously denouncing the elections as a sham.
If confirmed, it would be the first death since protests flared after Ahmadinejad was declared to have defeated opposition candidate moderate former premier, Mir Hossein Mousavi, in Friday's polls winning 63 percent of the vote.
The president said he could not "state definitively" whether the election was fraudulent, as claimed by opposition candidates.
"But what I can say is that there appears to be a sense on the part of people who were so hopeful and so engaged and so committed to democracy who now feel betrayed.
"I think it's important that moving forward, whatever investigations take place are done in a way that is not resulting in bloodshed and is not resulting in people being stifled in expressing their views."
Other world leaders earlier voiced alarm at the outbreak of violence in Iran as police cracked down on those protesting the disputed re-election of Ahmadinejad.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy called for "full light" to be shined on the results.
"It would be unacceptable if vote-rigging had falsified the result of the elections, against the will democratically expressed by the Iranian people," Sarkozy said in a statement.
And German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters: "We condemn the arrests made during the demonstrations."
Canadian Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon denounced what he called the "brutal treatment of peaceful protestors" and said Canada had "called for a full and transparent investigation into electoral fraud and discrepancies."