[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/06/18/art.cantor0618.gi.jpg caption="House Minority Whip Eric Cantor is criticizing the Obama administration's response to the political unrest in Iran."]
WASHINGTON (CNN) - A top congressional Republican on Thursday joined critics of the White House's response to Iran's disputed presidential election, saying the United States has a "moral responsibility" to condemn attacks on protesters.
"The administration's position that what's going on in Iran is a 'vigorous debate' is absurd," House Minority Whip Eric Cantor said in a statement released Thursday. "People are being brutalized and murdered by the regime in Tehran. We have no idea exactly how many have died or have been seriously injured, since the regime has restricted journalists. In no way do these actions constitute a 'vigorous debate.'"
The congressman from Virginia, the No. 2 Republican in the House, added that "America has a moral responsibility to stand up for these brave people, to defend human rights, and to condemn the violence and abuses by the regime in Tehran."
Obama said Monday he was "deeply troubled" by the violent protests that followed Friday's vote, which official results show resulted in the re-election of hard-line Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But he avoided siding with Ahmadinejad's opponents, telling reporters that "It is up to Iranians to make decisions about who Iran's leaders will be."
Tuesday, he added, "It's not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling, the U.S. president meddling in Iranian elections."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs defended that approach Thursday, telling reporters Obama "believes that he's struck the right tone."
"I know some people agree with what Sen. McCain said. Some people agree with what other Republicans have said that's very much like the president's position," Gibbs said. "The president strongly believes that we should - and have - spoken out to ensure the demonstrators have the universal right and principle to demonstrate without fear of harm. But at the same time, we have to respect their sovereignty."
Obama's opponent in last year's presidential race, Sen. John McCain, said Wednesday that the president's stated desire to avoid meddling in the Iranian elections sends the wrong message.
"On this issue, I do not believe that the president is taking a leadership (role) that is incumbent upon an American president, which we have throughout modern history, and that is to advocate for human rights and freedom - and free elections are one of those fundamentals," the Arizona Republican told CNN's "American Morning."
But Moorhead Kennedy, a former diplomat who was among the hostages held in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and 1980, told the same program Thursday that "If we have to hold back from interfering in any country, it should be Iran."
"I think if I had any conclusion to draw, we would have been much better off not interfering in Iran now," he said. Because the United States backed a 1953 coup that put Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in charge, and supported him until the 1979 revolution that created today's Islamic republic, Kennedy said, "There are a great many resentments there."
McCain said he wasn't calling for any American "meddling" by demanding free elections and human rights. But Sen. John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Washington would be making an "enormous mistake" by taking sides in the Iranian protests.
"There is no need for the United States of America to step into the middle of it and make this about America," Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, told CNN's "The Situation Room."
"It is an Iranian moment, spurred on by Iranians, thoroughly supported by Iranians to the degree that the supreme ayatollah has now backed off his own support for the elections (and) called for an investigation," he said.
- CNN's Paul Steinhauser, Deirdre Walsh, Peter Hamby and Dan Lothian contributed to this report.
Updated: 8:04 p.m.