On the third day of what is arguably the most serious crisis in the history of the 30-year-old Iranian revolution, President Obama finally weighed in with a three-part message.
First, our coolly cerebral leader said, he was "deeply troubled" by the apparent irregularities in Iran's presidential election and the violence in the Tehran streets. But second, it was "up to the Iranian people" to decide who should govern them. The U.S., he added, would continue to respect Iran's sovereignty. And third, he remained ready to engage in "hard-headed diplomacy" on Iran's nuclear program, its support for terrorism, and issues of national security concern to the United States no matter how the current crisis was resolved.
Pressed today by reporters for a tougher response to news of the death of at least seven Iranians protesters and the beating of hundreds of others in peaceful protests, Mr. Obama stuck to his carefully calibrated response: "That is not how government should interact with the people," he said.
Obama's statements yesterday and today, of course, were far better than those the White House issued this weekend saying that the administration was "monitoring" the situation and was "heartened" by the enthusiasm Iranians were showing for their election.
Nevertheless, Obama's response was immediately attacked, particularly by conservative critics. "How bold! How manly. How inspiring," commentator Ralph Peters wrote in Tuesday's New York Post. Each cracking of a Basiji baton on a demonstrator's skull was a "clenched fist shoved in Obama's face," he argued. The mullahs of Teheran saw Obama's tone not as conciliatory, but as weakness that was emboldening hardliners. The elections, Senator John McCain told FOX News, were "a sham." He hoped President Obama would "act." Precisely how he did not say.
Our president is clearly in a tough spot. And one part of his triple message seems spot on. Obama should not give Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his ally, incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, any political ammunition in what seems to be the fiercest power struggle within Iran's ruling elite since the 30-year old revolution. "Should the president side with the opposition," Salameh Nematt, The Daily Beast's international editor wrote today, "he would risk damaging their cause, especially as Ahmadinejad will most certainly accuse the opposition of treason by allying itself with the imperialist 'Great Satan.' " A worsening of relations with the Iranian regime, Nematt added, assuming it survives, could also "doom the proposed dialogue between Washington and Tehran." So on both counts, Obama is right to resist pleas from well-intended, and some non-benevolent activists that he "deplore" the outcome of the election, or accuse the hardliners of stealing it. Despite myriad suspicious signs of tampering and rigging, we still do not know for certain whether the election was stolen or whether Ahmadinejad will emerge as the eventual victor.
But the other two parts of Obama's cautious response seem off-key and destined to send ambiguous signals at best to Tehran. Plus, they come across to many here and abroad as indifference to both the regime's ruthless crackdown and to the hopes of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators for more than the Facebook freedom the mullahs bestow when it suits them. Could the president not have deplored the violence against Iran's peaceful protestors more emphatically? Was "deeply troubled" the most eloquent defense of the cynical violation of their human and civil rights that our usually eloquent president could muster?
President Obama is also wrong to appear too eager to rush into diplomatic engagement. Of course talking to America's enemies is not a favor one does them if it helps secure vital American interests. If Ahmadinejad and his hard-line clique triumph, Washington will have to deal with them despite what Obama called the incumbent president's "odious" views. But if the violence does not subside, diplomatic engagement will at very least have to be deferred. Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at Brookings who does not disagree fundamentally with Obama's stance, argues nonetheless that emphasizing engagement risks creating the impression that Obama believes the struggle is virtually over, rather than possibly just beginning. "Stressing engagement now is tantamount to declaring the rapid end of this fight a foregone conclusion," O'Hanlon told me.
While the election of Ahmadinejad or his rival and more pragmatic fellow insider, Mir Hossein Mousavi, may ultimately have no effect on Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons or its support for terrorism, the outcome is likely to dramatically affect how Iranians live and conduct their internal affairs. That should be of great concern to Mr. Obama. Does it not risk undermining American values and the determination of Iranian protestors to keep battling for freedom to pretend otherwise?