Unrest in Iran Forces Obama's Hand

The images of massive protests and beaten students in the streets of Tehran, Iran, forced an initially reluctant President Barack Obama to speak out sharply against the crackdown and to raise doubts about the election’s outcome.

“I am deeply troubled by the violence that I’ve been seeing on television,” Obama said Monday, more than two days after protests began to break out Saturday in Tehran. “I think that the democratic process, free speech, the ability of people to peacefully dissent — all of those are universal values and need to be respected, and whenever I see violence perpetrated on people who are peacefully dissenting, and whenever the American people see that, I think they are rightfully troubled.”

Obama reasserted a promise for “hard-headed diplomacy” with any Iranian regime and stressed that he wasn’t trying to dictate Iran’s internal politics, but he also expressed sympathy with the supporters of the opposition, describing “a sense on the part of people who were so hopeful and so engaged and so committed to democracy, who now feel betrayed.”

“I think it’s important that, moving forward, whatever investigations take place are done in a way that is not resulting in bloodshed and is not resulting in people being stifled in expressing their views,” he said.
Obama’s extensive comments Monday marked a break with days of extreme caution on the riveting conflict since Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the victor — and rival Mir Hossein Mousavi protested the results.

On Saturday, the White House was merely “monitoring” the situation, press secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement. On Sunday, Vice President Joe Biden said he had “doubts” about the election. And on Monday, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the U.S. is “deeply troubled” by events in Iran but stopped short of condemning them.

“I haven’t used that word, ‘condemn,’” he told the State Department press corps. “We need to see how things unfold.”

“You need to see more heads cracked in the middle of the street?” Fox News’ James Rosen shot back.

“We need a deeper assessment of what’s going on,” Kelly said.

Earlier in the briefing, though, Kelly gave clearer expression to the administration’s dilemma: “We have to look at our own national interest too — nonproliferation is a very important priority in this administration,” he said.

Further complicating matters, the State Department found itself yesterday refusing to confirm or deny word — which one official later confirmed — that the department’s top Iran hand, Dennis Ross, would be moving to the White House’s National Security Council, a move whose implications for American policy remain unclear.

The Iranian turmoil has exposed a central conflict in Obama’s foreign policy.

Obama’s core message of democracy and change dovetails with the hopes of Iranian reformers, and even the tech-friendly, youth-driven style of the uprising in Tehran echoes the American president’s own campaign.

But Obama also was elected on a promise to tone down America’s moralizing rhetoric, and his foreign policy may owe as much to unromantic old realists such as Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski as it does to the hopes of a new generation in Iran. 

In addition, the Iranian opposition candidate Mousavi has not asked for America’s help and likely wouldn’t appreciate it.

“The calculation here is this: We don’t want to become the story in Iranian politics,” said Bruce Riedel, a Brookings Institution analyst who led a White House review of Afghanistan and Pakistan policy. “The Ahmadinejad forces would love to turn this into the United States against the Islamic Republic and to make the opposition portrayed as the cat’s paw of American imperialism.”

“At the end of the day, we can condemn it all we like,” Riedel said. “That isn’t going to help one person on the streets of Tehran. That may make us feel better; it’s not going to make the Iranians feel much better.”

But the power of the images from Iran and of broad public sympathy for the young Iranians protesting the regime left little space for old-fashioned realpolitik. The first voices calling for Obama to speak up for the Iranian people began to broaden Monday, but the earliest calls were from congressional Iran hawks.

“I would hope that President Obama and members of both parties in Congress will speak out, loudly and clearly, about what is happening in Iran right now and unambiguously express their solidarity with the brave Iranians who went to the polls in the hope of change and who are now looking to the outside world for strength and support,” Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said Sunday.

“The administration’s silence in the face of Iran’s brutal suppression of democratic rights represents a step backwards for homegrown democracy in the Middle East,” said House GOP whip Eric Cantor of Virginia.

But the discomfort with the White House’s stance began to extend toward the left, recalling the deep discomfort with realism among the liberal hawks who backed former President Bill Clinton’s war in the Balkans.

“‘Realism’ should no more be an ideological fetish under Obama than ‘freedom’ was under Bush,” The New Yorker’s George Packer wrote Monday. “With riot police and armed militiamen beating and, in a few reported cases, killing unarmed demonstrators in the streets of Iran’s cities, for the Obama administration to continue parsing equivocal phrases serves no purpose other than to make it look feckless.”

Others also acknowledged that Obama must walk a careful line, but urged clearer sympathy with the Iranian people, if not its opposition leaders.

“One would hope we’d hear more of what we’d heard from Vice President Biden: concern about the outcome, skepticism about [the vote count] and at least a note of sympathy for the people who have been risking their lives in the process,” Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at Brookings who supports Obama’s policy of engagement, said before his Monday remarks.

Obama briefly found himself in the unenviable position of lagging American and global public opinion for difficult-to-explain strategic reasons, even as foreign leaders have been far blunter toward the Iranian leadership.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called for an investigation of the election results, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said flatly that there were “signs of irregularities” in the results.

“Expressions of solidarity with those who are defending human rights, with students and others, are important,” former Czech President Vaclav Havel said Monday.

The American president’s Monday comments thrust him into the center of the international debate over Iran’s conduct, but he tried to keep the United States out of Iran’s internal debate.

“We respect Iranian sovereignty and want to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran,” he said.

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