WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama expressed "deep concerns" Tuesday about the legitimacy of Iran's presidential elections and post-voting crackdowns but declined to term hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election a fraud. His spokesman said the U.S. offers to talk with Iran's government over its suspected nuclear weapons program would not change regardless of the victor.
Obama, praising what he called "amazing ferment" in Iran around the disputed voting, stepped gingerly around the topic for the second day. Human rights, press freedom and democracy advocates had expected the president to show outrage at the Iranian government's treatment of protesters and skepticism for the election outcome.
Instead, Obama, noting the 30-year-old freeze in diplomatic relations between the two nations and high-stakes international tensions over nuclear issues, told reporters at the White House, "It's not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling."
"This is a debate inside of Iran for Iranians," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
GOP Sen. John McCain said Obama needs to talk more forcefully. "He should speak out that this is a corrupt, flawed sham of an election and that the Iranian people have been deprived of their rights," McCain said on NBC's "Today" show before Obama's remarks after a White House meeting with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
But Gibbs said the primary U.S. interests in Iran remain the same: the West's accusation, denied by Tehran, that Iran is working to build an atomic bomb and that it is a state sponsor of terrorist groups. Obama has offered to engage in direct diplomacy with Iran, a policy shift from the Bush administration, and that won't change no matter the election outcome, Gibbs said.
"Our interests haven't changed regardless of ultimately who the Iranians pick," he said.
In a television interview, Obama played down the notion that Iranian policy would be much different under the main pro-reform challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, particularly since the real ruler of the country is a clerical regime led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"It's important to understand that although there is amazing ferment taking place in Iran, the difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi, in terms of their actual policies, may not be as great as has been advertised," Obama said on CNBC. "Either way we were going to be dealing with an Iranian regime that has historically been hostile to the United States, that has caused problems in the neighborhood and is pursuing nuclear weapons."
Three days of violent demonstrations erupted Saturday after the government announced Ahmadinejad was the victor. Mousavi's supporters claim the election was stolen. Iran's state radio said seven people were killed in clashes related to a protest Monday by supporters of reformist candidate .
The clerical government appears to be trying to defuse popular anger by announcing a recount of some disputed ballots, even as it won't annul the election and cracks down on foreign media and calls supporters to the streets. Rival demonstrations on Tuesday drew thousands of pro-reform protesters as well as thousands at a state-organized rally.
Obama made clear that this "is not how governments should interact with their people." His rhetoric went just a bit beyond his careful statement on Monday, when he said an inquiry into the disputed presidential election should go ahead without violence and that it would be wrong to be silent about developments.
"People's voices should be heard and not suppressed," he said Tuesday.
Obama held out hope that more Iranians are dissatisfied with the country's hard-line, clergy-based power structure that took over in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
"I do believe that something has happened in Iran," the president said. "There is a questioning of the kinds of antagonistic postures towards the international community that have taken place in the past and that there are people who want to see greater openness and greater debate and want to see greater democracy."
Obama said the reactions by Khamenei, more influential than the president, "indicates he understands the Iranian people have deep concerns about the election."
The administration's special envoy for Mideast peace, former Sen. George Mitchell, said Iran's efforts to promote Islamic radicalism in the region has changed the prospects for Arab-Israeli peace.
The State Department also has asked Twitter to postpone a scheduled maintenance shutdown of its service to keep information flowing from and within Iran, three U.S. officials said Tuesday. Tech-savvy Iranians have turned to the microblogging Web site to communicate while texting and other communication methods are shut down by the regime.
The officials said the department intervened with the microblogging Web site to prevent it going offline for 90 minutes during what would have been daytime on Monday in Iran.
Associated Press writers Anne Gearan, Matthew Lee and Robert Burns contributed to this story.