WASHINGTON -- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is still waiting for the apology he wanted from President Obama.
Asked today about the Iranian president's demand that the U.S. apologize for allegedly interfering in elections there -- and his comparison of Obama with former President George W. Bush -- Obama brushed it off.
"I don't take Mr. Ahmadinejad's statements seriously about apologies, particularly given the fact that the United States has gone out of its way not to interfere with the election process in Iran," Obama told reporters in a joint press availability with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The questioner, Jeff Zeleny of the New York Times, had also asked if Ahmadinejad should apologize for Obama for the Bush comparison. Obama didn't take that bait.
"I'm really not concerned about Mr. Ahmadinejad apologizing to me," he said. But if the Iranian government is feeling remorseful, Obama had some ideas to pass along. "I would suggest that Mr. Ahmadinejad think carefully about the obligations he owes to his own people. And he might want to consider looking at the families of those who've been beaten or shot or detained."
Obama kept on the diplomatic tightrope he's been trying to walk in the two weeks since Iran's apparently fraudulent elections sparked protests across the country -- and an increasingly violent crackdown by the religious hardliners in charge. The White House has been trying to condemn Iran for human rights violations, without going quite so far as to say that reform candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi should lead the government instead of Ahmadinejad.
Immediately after the vote, in fact, Obama had said there might not be much difference between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad on the main issues where the U.S. and Iran disagree -- Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons and its support of Hezbollah and Hamas. Today, though, he inched away from that statement, and recognized that Mousavi would, in fact, bring a chance to Iran.
"What's absolutely clear is over the course of subsequent days that Mousavi has shown to have captured the imagination or the spirit of forces within Iran that were interested in opening up, and that he has become a representative of many of those people who are on the streets and who have displayed extraordinary bravery and extraordinary courage," Obama said.
Getting back on the tightrope, though, Obama said he still believes "that ultimately it's up to the Iranian people to make decisions about who their leaders are going to be." Iranian authorities have still not finally certified the results of the election -- which showed Ahmadinejad winning by a 2-1 margin, despite an apparent wave of support for Mousavi as the vote drew closer. The government has admitted that dozens of cities reported turnout that was higher than the number of eligible voters, but officials insist that had no impact on the outcome. An appeal is still pending, but by some time next week, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Guardian Council are likely to certify Ahmadinejad's alleged victory.
That will pose a problem for the White House. By saying it's up to Iran to choose its own leaders -- even though Iran's government has made clear it believes Ahmadinejad won reelection -- Obama is implicitly challenging the official line on the election. Russia, for instance, has already recognized Ahmadinejad's victory; for the U.S. to indicate any question about who won could become diplomatically provocative. And it would be fine with Ahmadinejad if the U.S. got involved; reports out of Iran now say authorities are torturing protesters to draw out false confessions about foreign plots.
But for now, that dilemma is still in the future -- leaving Obama room to talk in general terms about human rights violations without having to weigh in explicitly on who really won the vote. "A government that treats its own citizens with that kind of ruthlessness and violence and that cannot deal with peaceful protesters who are trying to have their voices heard in an equally peaceful way, I think, has moved outside of universal norms, international norms that are important to uphold," he said.