"Nico, I know that you, and all across the Internet, we've been seeing a lot of reports coming directly out of Iran. I know that there may actually be questions from people in Iran who are communicating through the Internet. Do you have a question?" the president said.
Indeed he did, offering a question that he said came from an Iranian protestor with whom he had online contact.
The question gave Mr. Obama another chance to express his doubts about Iran's election and concerns for the Iranians protesting the declared winner, incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"Ultimately, this is up to the Iranian people to decide who their leadership is going to be and the structure of their government," said the president.
Pitney said later that the White House had called to invite him to the news conference. There was no seat for him in the briefing room, but a deputy press secretary escorted Pitney from the press office to a standing room position near the front. And the president called on him to offer a question before any other reporter but one, Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press, which always gets first question.
The incident reflects White House efforts to convey its new, harder line on the situation in Iran to audiences there and elsewhere.
Mr. Obama opened his news conference with his strongest statement to date about the election and protests in Iran.
"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 declared.
In answer to the question from Pitney, Mr. Obama said there are "significant questions" about the legitimacy of Iran's election.
Bluntly, he insisted that he was not interfering in Iran's internal affairs, but he hailed the demonstrators for "courage" and "dignity" as he cast a spotlight on "a remarkable opening within Iranian society."
Further, he left no doubt about what he wants the Iranian regime to do.
"I think it is not too late for the Iranian government to recognize that there is a peaceful path that will lead to stability and legitimacy and prosperity for the Iranian people," he said. "We hope they take it."
The White House says it didn't know what question Pitney would ask, which means the question might not have been planted, although the reporter clearly was.
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