White House Spokesman Changes Tune on Ahmadinejad as "Elected Leader" of Iran

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Wednesday walked back remarks from a day earlier in which he concluded that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president sworn in Wednesday for a second term despite allegations of election fraud, is the "elected leader" of the Islamic Republic.

Addressing reporters Tuesday, Gibbs responded to a question about whether the administration recognizes the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad's re-election by saying the debate about Iran's leadership "was ongoing in Iran by Iranians," and that the United States remains committed to the goal of "reaching out in order to ensure that they don't develop a nuclear weapons program."

Asked whether that meant the administration recognizes Ahmadinejad as the legitimate president of Iran, the spokesman replied, "He's the elected leader."

On Wednesday, Gibbs said he wanted to "correct a little bit" of what he said a day ealier. 

"I denoted that Mr. Ahmadinejad was the elected leader of Iran. I would say it's not for me to pass judgment on. He's been inaugurated, that's a fact. Whether any election was fair, obviously the Iranian people still have questions about that and we'll let them decide that. But I would simply say he's been inaugurated and we know that is simply a fact," he said.

Despite massive opposition to his return to power and several show trials of hundreds of protest organizers and participants, Ahmadinejad was sworn in for a second term on Wednesday. His inauguration was surrounded by security, including a mile-wide area cordoned off around the Parliament building and 9,000 police, anti-riot and plains-clothed officers. 

One woman able to get within earshot of the two-term president was arrested for yelling in support of the opposition candidate Houssein Mir Mousavi. 

"Long live Mousavi. Death to the dictator," she shouted.

With security so tight, several others searching for a place to protest headed toward the outdoor bazaar, which instantly shut down upon fear of demonstrations.

Traveling in Kenya on Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the Iranian government to "recognize the rights of the people of Iran"  and to make democracy "much more than a flawed election as that last one was."

Clinton also addressed Ahmadinejad's return to power by saying the United States doesn't get to choose other countries' leaders.

"For purposes of actions and multilateral organizations like the UN, for other important matters, we don't always get to deal with the government that we want to. It's not our choice, it's the choice of the individual countries as to how they determine their leadership," she said. 

Clinton added that the United States still has "engagement" on the table for Tehran, either directly or through a multi-country forum, but has not received any response. She said President Obama intends to re-evaluate Iran's willingness to meet and negotiate this fall, but other considerations are in place.

"On the sanction side there is a great opportunity for the international community to stand up against Iran's nuclear program, and to impose consequences of significance. On the incentives side, we want the Iranians to know, although they are violating international rules and regulations, and though they cannot in our view and the view of majority of the international community become a nuclear weapons power, that under appropriate safeguards, they would be able to have a civil nuclear program," she said.

Asked again whether the United States recognizes Ahmadinejad as the leader of Iran, Gibbs said Wednesday, "It's not for me or for us to denote his legitimacy, except to acknowledge the fact." 

He added that he cannot pass judgment on whether the election was fair. 

I think that's for the Iranian people to decide, and obviously there are many that still have a lot of questions," he said.