WASHINGTON - President Obama stuck to his carefully tailored response to Iran's internal crisis yesterday despite pressure from Republican critics, as he continued to speak up for protesters' rights without making specific demands on Iran's hard-line leaders.

"The last thing that I want to do is to have the United States be a foil for those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States," Obama said in an interview released yesterday. "We shouldn't be playing into that."

The president spoke Friday during an interview with CBS News' Harry Smith. It was to be broadcast today on "The Early Show."

Obama's measured statements so far attempt to speak up for human rights while preserving U.S. options and lessening the chance that he becomes a scapegoat for the cleric-led government, which has blamed the West for stirring up street protests that turned into bloody clashes with police and militia.

Obama kept a public silence yesterday, although a spokesman said he discussed Iran with foreign policy advisers in the Oval Office for more than 30 minutes.

The White House did not book any surrogates on the Sunday talk shows to defend or explain the administration's approach. Republicans used their broadcast appearances to call the president timid or feckless, while the Democrat who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee said the U.S. had no hand in the disputed election.

Obama has tried to hold a middle ground as the crisis unfolds, and found the ground shifting by the day. His advisers say any thunderous denunciation of Iran's rulers would invite them to blame Western interference and might worsen the violence instead of end it.

Both the House and Senate voted overwhelmingly last week to condemn an official crackdown on the mostly peaceful demonstrations, a stronger action than the White House has yet taken.

"The president of the United States is supposed to lead the free world, not follow it," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "He's been timid and passive more than I would like."

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and others noted that Western leaders, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have demanded a recount or more forcefully condemned the government crackdown.

"I'd like to see the president be stronger than he has been, although I appreciate the comments that he made [on Saturday]," McCain said. "I think we ought to have America lead."

Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, a moderate Republican who holds the party's top position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, seemed to echo Obama's caution.

"The challenge continues, which is going to come to a conclusion one way or another," Lugar said. "Either the protesters bring about change or they're suppressed, and it's a potentially very brutal outcome at the end of the day." *