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Still, some Iranian activists say the U.S. should do more to show its opposition to Iran’s abuse of human rights.

“Unfortunately, the U.S. tries to engage with the Islamic republic no matter who becomes its president,” said Roozbeh Farahanipour, a Washington-based activist who fled Iran in 2000 but traveled back to his homeland in June to try to coordinate election protests. “The U.S. totally forgot American values, and they’re just looking for an Islamic ‘Chinese model’ to begin engaging with these regimes and make business during a poor economic situation,” Mr. Farahanipour said.

U.S. officials may also be seeking to avoid statements and actions that could feed Iranian claims that outsiders are largely responsible for the postelection unrest. The administration is, however, supporting programs that help Iranians seeking to circumvent government controls on the Internet.

“Behind the scenes we were doing a lot to really empower the protesters without getting in the way,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told CNN recently. “And we’re continuing to speak out and support the opposition.”

Tehran seized on the statements, publishing them on the front page of the hard-line Kayhan daily as a “confession.”

“On democracy promotion, Obama is a gradualist with transformative goals, in sharp contrast with [President George W.] Bush’s ‘liberation theology’ backed by force and sanctions,” said Mark Medish, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former adviser to President Clinton. “Obama’s engagement approach is true to the American tradition of pragmatism and is also making up for the fact that Bush overplayed his hand.”

Mr. Medish added, “The paradox of democracy promotion across borders is that tools of influence often backfire much as organ transplants often fail. America stands for the democratic idea globally, but American history also teaches that the struggle for rights is a deeply domestic and organic process.

“Finding the right balance point for effective outside pressure is tricky,” Mr. Medish said. “Obama knows this.”

Iason Athanasiadis reported from Istanbul.