President Obama needs to step off the sidelines and stand up for Iranians who are protesting last week's election and challenging the authority of the country's theocratic regime, Republican lawmakers said Sunday.
Though the White House released a written statement Saturday in which Obama used his strongest language to date to condemn what he called a "violent and unjust" government crackdown on protesters, critics say Obama needs to be personally out front on the issue.
They worry that the U.S. president has not extended clear and firm moral support to the protesters who have flooded Iran's streets over the past week despite the regime's threat of an even bloodier crackdown. Already one official death count is reported to be at least 17.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the president's opponent in the 2008 election, said Obama should "be stronger than he has been" with Iran and suggested European heads of state were showing more leadership than Obama on the issue.
"I think we ought to have America lead. When you look at the statements by President Sarkozy, Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Brown have been much stronger. We should lead. And I also think he should point out that this is not just an Iranian issue. This is an American issue -- what we're all about," McCain said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
He said he's not in favor of "sending arms" or "fomenting violence," but that the United States needs to "be on the right side of history." Protesters view last week's election as rigged.
Both McCain and Graham said Obama was moving in the right direction with his written statement Saturday but needs to do more.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., told "FOX News Sunday" that Obama, in person, needs to address the Iranian and American people -- he called the election backlash a potential "game changer" in Iran which Obama should leverage.
"This president is a great orator. This president needs to come out, he needs to speak to the American people, but more important he needs to speak to the people of Iran, the people of the Middle East and he has to make a forceful statement on behalf of the people on the streets for freedom and democracy," Hoekstra said. The top Republican on the House intelligence committee said Obama needs to follow up on the groundwork he laid with his recent address to the Muslim world in Cairo.
There is an inherent risk, though, in aligning too publicly with the protesters in Iran. The White House and some Democrats argue that speaking out too vociferously against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the ruling clerics will only give ammunition to the regime and allow them to cast the opposition as a U.S.-backed uprising.
"I think the president is handling a rapidly evolving, very complex situation about as well as you can expect," said Evan Bayh, D-Ind., member of the Senate intelligence committee. "He has put us clearly on the side of the reformers, clearly on the side of fair and free elections, clearly condemned the violence. But he's done it in a smart way.
"This regime is rapidly losing legitimacy with its own people. ...We should not let them change the narrative to one of being meddling Americans," Bayh told "FOX News Sunday."
Though Obama was playing golf on Sunday, Father's Day, he also met privately for more than 30 minutes with foreign policy advisers in the Oval Office to discuss the Iranian situation. He expressed concern about the violence and "unjust actions" in the country, according to an aide.
"He's got a very delicate path to walk here," said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. "You don't want to take ownership of this."
Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst and associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Obama erred by suggesting in an earlier interview that there is little difference between Ahmadinejad and opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. But he said the concern that American rhetoric could be used against the protesters is legitimate.
"I think this regime is looking for the United States to step into this trap so they have the license to slaughter the Iranian people and accuse them, you know, of being American," he said.
But critics of the administration's careful approach say the regime will accuse the U.S. of meddling no matter what. Indeed, Ahmadinejad warned the United States and Britain Sunday to "correct" their "interfering stances."
Hoekstra said Obama is "stubbornly" holding onto the belief that negotiations with the current regime are the best way forward and suggested this is a critical opportunity to influence the makeup of the regime that will eventually control an arsenal of nuclear weapons -- something he described as inevitable.
"The regime is going to accuse us of meddling whether we do or whether we do not say anything, but if we're going to do something we should speak out," Hoekstra said.
As lawmakers in Washington debate how to approach the Iranian unrest, and where it will ultimately lead, the crackdown does not appear to abating.
State media reported that authorities arrested the daughter and other relatives of ex-President Hashemi Rafsanjani -- an Ahmadinejad foe. And according to Reporters Without Borders, Iranian authorities have arrested 23 journalists and bloggers since post-election protests began a week ago.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that the protests have "unmasked" the true nature of Iran's repressive regime.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.