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With Latest Remarks, Obama Seeks To Silence Critics On Iran

  • Heather Maher

U.S. President Barack Obama at his June 23 press conference.

U.S. President Barack Obama at his June 23 press conference.

Over the past 10 days, U.S. President Barack Obama has made numerous comments about the unfolding crisis in Iran, expressing U.S. support for the Iranian people's right to exercise their freedom of speech, Washington's commitment to free and fair elections, and his own doubts about the legitimacy of Iran's June election.

All along, he has sought to avoid inserting the United States into the middle of the crisis by calling for new elections, or withdrawing his previous offer to engage the government of Iran diplomatically.

That approach has prompted some critics, mostly Republicans, to accuse Obama of staying on the sidelines and not being tough enough.

But at a press conference this week, the U.S. president significantly hardened his administration's position toward Iran, condemning the violence and telling the protesters they are "on the right side of history."

Tougher Language

When he stepped up to the podium on June 23, Obama appeared eager to prove two sets of critics wrong: those at home who say he hasn't taken a hard enough line with the Iranian government over its brutal suppression of democracy protesters, and those in Iran who accuse him of meddling in their internal affairs and blame Washington for the popular unrest.

In his opening statement, he used his harshest language yet to describe the U.S. government's reaction to the bloodshed.

"The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days," Obama 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 U.S. president warned Tehran that how it handles dissent within its own country will shape the tone of its own future and of future relations with other countries.

To the beleaguered Iranian protesters, he sent a message that the United States stands in solidarity with them, as the entire international community bears witness to what he called their “courage and dignity."

Obama cited what has become an iconic video, showing the agonizing death of young student Neda Agha Soltan, who was shot during protests on the streets of Tehran. He said the "heartbreaking" video is proof that human rights abuses are taking place.

YouTube grab showing Neda Agha Soltani after she was hit by a bullet during a Tehran protest on June 20.
Referring to the Internet sites and technology that Iranians are using to tell the rest of the world about official brutality, Obama said the government's attempts to keep such cruelty a secret were doomed to fail.

"In 2009, no iron fist is strong enough to shut off the world from bearing witness to peaceful protests of justice," Obama said.


When a reporter asked Obama why he had waited until now to use such harsh language toward the Iranian government, the U.S. leader defended his statements by saying that "right after the election [in Iran] I said that we had profound concerns about the nature of the election, but that it was not up to us to determine what the outcome was."

"As soon as violence broke out -- in fact, in anticipation of potential violence -- we were very clear in saying that violence was unacceptable, that that was not how governments operate with respect to their people," Obama said. "So we've been entirely consistent in terms of how we've approached this."

Hard-Line Critics

Jonah Goldberg, a politically conservative author, syndicated columnist, and editor of "The National Review Online," said Obama's tougher language is "welcome" and "the right thing to say," but is long overdue.

Goldberg would have liked to have heard the president voice his anger long before some European heads of state and both houses of Congress did.

On June 19, the U.S. House and Senate both passed nonbinding resolutions condemning the ongoing violence by the Iranian government and expressing support for the democracy protesters.

Goldberg said that throughout the crisis, Obama has stubbornly, and wrongly, clung to his plan to engage Iran diplomatically, come what may.

The U.S. president came into office promising to sit down with Iran and work out a deal on its nuclear program and ending Tehran's sponsorship of terrorism.

"That entire world view has been rendered irrelevant by the events in Iran over the last 10 days, and yet we've seen with Obama that he's still clinging to what can only be described as sort of an ideological fixation of talking and diplomacy," Goldberg said.

"And after the bloodshed that we've seen, the idea of sitting down and talking to these guys simply isn't going to work as a political matter, either domestically or on the international stage, and I think Obama would be well served if he took that reality into account."

He said Obama needs to see Iran for what it is: A regime immune to diplomatic overtures and the idea of negotiation in good faith.

Obama, Goldberg complains, is lacking "moral clarity" in the face of a government that is beating and killing its own people for simply protesting in the streets.

Historical Context

Embracing the opposite view is Stephen Kinzer, a career foreign correspondent for "The New York Times" and author of "All The Shah's Men: An American Coup And The Roots Of Middle East Terror" as well as "Overthrow: America's Century Of Regime Change From Hawaii To Iraq."

He said the record of U.S. intervention in the region, especially in Iran, gives Obama limited moral authority to deliver lectures on democracy.

Kinzer said Obama's critics fail to take into account that the U.S.- and British-sponsored overthrow of democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh in 1953 is still fresh in Iranians' minds.

Many also haven't forgiven the United States for supporting Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War, which killed hundreds of thousands of Iranians.

Obama clearly understands the distrust in Iran toward U.S. involvement, and has chosen his words carefully so as not to inadvertently hurt the cause of democracy with strong statements of U.S. support.

Kinzer also noted that among Obama's critics "are the same people who last year were advising that the United States bomb Iran. They wanted to go to war with Iran. If we had done what they said, many of these brave people that are out on the streets of Iran protecting and defending their democratic rights, would be dead by now."

Where Goldberg wants to see the White House abandon its plans for engagement and lead a program of international ostracization and sanctions against Iran, Kinzer said that if Ahmadinejad remains in power, Obama should stay the course.

He argued that the United States and Iran share long-term strategic interests; among them, stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan and limiting Russian influence in the Middle East.

Eye To The Future

Those interests transcend regime change, Kinzer said, not to mention that the United States still has a national interest in persuading Iran to give up its pursuit of a nuclear weapon and drop its support of terrorism, no matter who holds the title of president.

"If it turns out that [President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad remains in power, then I think the United States should still proceed -- not try to dictate the form of government inside Iran, but go ahead and try to work out an agreement that will bring Iran back into the family of nations and reduce tensions in the Middle East that will be good for all parties," Kinzer said.

Moreover, Kinzer added that "it's not for the United States to make judgments on the fairness of the process that brought various leaders to power."

"We deal with the leader of China, we deal with the leader of Egypt, we deal with all kinds of leaders who have not been brought to power democratically -- we cannot be the arbiters of the internal politics of every country," Kinzer said. "If we only dealt with regimes that met some abstract standards of democracy, there'd be plenty of our friends in the world that we'd have to shut out."

At his Tuesday press conference, Obama repeatedly declined requests to say what he would do next if the crisis continued.

He said only that Iran knows there is a path it can take if it wants to join the international community, and that he, along with the rest of the world, was now waiting to see what Tehran would do.

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