The U.S. State Department says the anti-government protests that accompanied the funeral of a dissident Iranian cleric Monday reflect a "fissure" in Iranian society that authorities in Tehran are finding increasingly hard to deal with. Both the White House and State Department expressed condolences to Iranians over the death of Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri.
The Obama administration has been cautious in its remarks on Iranian political unrest since disputed elections in June, not wanting to be blamed for fomenting protests.
But its comments on the death of Ayatollah Montazeri and the ensuing demonstrations in the holy city of Qom were some of the most pointed by the United States to date.
At a news briefing, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley reiterated White House condolences to Iranians over the passing of the dissident cleric.
He said the Qom demonstrations, reported to have drawn hundreds of thousands of people and harsh attacks on mourners by security forces, were a continuation of a "challenge" he said has confronted Iranian authorities going back to the June voting.
"The fact is that there is a fissure inside Iranian society and the government is pushing by the various means that are available to it, including the use of various security forces, to kind of put this genie back in the bottle," he said. "And it is increasingly difficult for them to do that. Montazeri was a significant figure in Iranian society. He had given voice to the universal rights that we think should be available to all the people of the world, including the people of Iran," he added.
Crowley said the late cleric, one of the founding fathers of Iran's Islamic government, had gone on to challenge the legitimacy of actions the government has taken both recently and historically. He said Tehran authorities should be responsive to concerns being raised by the protest movement.
"It is incumbent upon the government of Iran to satisfy the aspirations of its people. And there is something happening inside Iranian society. It is hard to predict how it will unfold," he said. "But certainly the angst that we continue to see within Iranian society is of great concern to us. And we think that ultimately the government of Iran has to change its relationship with its own people, and that's certainly consistent with the universal principles of freedom of association, freedom of expression, open political processes, and so forth," said Crowley.
Last week, at a university forum on human rights in Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called administration policy toward the Iranian political crisis a "balancing act" - trying to assure that the United States' "clear support" for pro-democracy forces does not undermine the legitimacy of the protests themselves.