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However, Mr. Obama’s sudden decision to toughen his language on Tehran had the effect of making the State Department look out of sync with the White House.

Until about an hour before the presidential news conference, the State Department continued to follow a more cautious public line, using words like “deeply concerned” about the situation in Iran, but refusing to “condemn” the crackdown. Then came Mr. Obama’s surprise.

“The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings and imprisonments of the last few days,” he said. “I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost.”

The decision on Iran was very personal, officials said. Mr. Obama knew his senior aides’ views, but it was up to him to “pull the trigger.”

“We have so few tools when we deal with Iran, and we don’t fully understand what’s going on, so all we’ve got is what the president says,” the first administration official said. “There isn’t a huge process behind it.”

In general, the officials said, Mr. Obama has relied on the government bureaucracy to formulate language on foreign affairs.

For example, before Mr. Obama’s meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday, everything he said was a “result of a long process involving meetings and briefing papers,” the official said. Even with North Korea, another country that has no diplomatic relations with the U.S., “we have a formalized mechanism in the six-party [nuclear] talks and more moving pieces.”

Analysts said the Iran episode shows Mr. Obama’s nuanced thinking and in-depth analysis of foreign policy, although some warned that he risks being too cautious and appearing indecisive.

“The demonstrators in Iran have revealed the extreme caution of Obama’s approach to the world, as if he is afraid of making a mistake, and his dislike of disruptions to an agenda he has already laid out,” Reginald Dale, director of the Transatlantic Media Network at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in reference to the president’s offer of engagement, which so far has been spurned by Tehran.

Kim R. Holmes, vice president of the Heritage Foundation, who was assistant secretary of state for international organizations in the George W. Bush administration, said: “The caution that we should not meddle was shown to be pointless after the Iranian leadership blamed the protests on America and Britain anyway.”

Michael J. Green, former senior director for East Asian affairs on the National Security Council in the Bush White House, said Mr. Obama may be trying the learn from his predecessor’s mistakes.

Mr. Bush tended to make decisions during meetings with his national security team, but the problem was that his aides “interpreted his directions differently,” especially during his first term, Mr. Green said.

At the time, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s aides often said that he “felt good” about the outcome of a White House meeting, because Mr. Bush had taken his advice. Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld felt the same way, except that their advice was usually very different.

“It seems that Obama is trying to avoid such confusion by laying out specifically what he wants,” Mr. Green said.

As involved as Mrs. Clinton may have been in the process leading up to Mr. Obama’s decision on Iran, “the secretary of state usually doesn’t have the last say, because he or she is not there with the president all the time,” he said. “With all the modern technology, location still means power.”