Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Obama's Stronger Statement on Iran

President Barack Obama strongly condemned the "unjust actions" the Iranian government is using to suppress the protesters marching in the streets. "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 said in his opening remarks to a press conference held today. "I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost."

David Axelrod, a senior adviser to the president, attributed Obama's escalating rhetoric to the evolving facts on the ground when he was interviewed by Chris Matthews on "Hardball." He noted that the president had spoken up for the right of the Iranian people to peaceably assemble as soon as Iran's election results were officially announced. The president himself, noted his words of caution to the theocratic regime in his response to Major Garrett of the FOX News Channel.

From the very beginning the president's response to the Iranian election results were remarkably restrained. He, like most Americans, obviously hoped Iranians would vote for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's ouster. The president wants to negotiate with the Iranians and though he has promised to negotiate with the eventual winner, whoever it was, no one believes Ahmadinejad was going to behave as a genuine negotiating partner.

However, the president noted that we have a complicated relationship with the Iranians. We had, after all, overthrown Iran's democratically-elected government in 1953 at our British allies' urging in order to safeguard access to that country's oil supply. Then we backed the Iraqis when it, then ruled by the late Saddam Hussein, invaded Iran in 1980.

Had we forcefully called for the Iranian government's ouster, as some of the president's Republican critics have suggested, we'd undercut the Iranian protesters' legitimacy by giving the regime the excuse they need to brand its critics Western plants.

Iran's theocratic ruling class has, no doubt has already blamed us for meddling in Iran's domestic affairs. Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran's Supreme Leader, has denounced the Western Powers, and the United Kingdom in particular, for interfering in Iran's domestic ongoing political dispute.

But these accusations had not swayed the Iranian public behind the ruling class because they are not believable. No western power has invaded Iran and no western power, as of yet, imposed economically-crippling sanctions designed to lead to the government's ouster. In other words, we have given the Iranian public no reason to believe in their government's claims.

The president wisely ignored demands for economic sanctions and, up to now, escalating rhetoric designed to pressure the Iranian regime into calling for new elections. He did not know, at the time in which Iranians first marched on Tehran's streets, whether the protesters would succeed or fail. He did not know whether Iran's "Supreme Leader" would back President Ahmadinejad when he addressed his people during last Friday's prayers, call for a recount (statewide or not), or call for a new election. Nor did he know how the protesters would react as soon as the Supreme Leader spoke.

Protesting Ahmadinejad, after all is one thing. Protesting the Supreme Leader's decision is quite another. The former calls into question the election results, the other their faith in the system writ large.

On Saturday we got an answer. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of Iranians marched in Tehran's streets. But tens of thousands it not hundreds of thousands. And since hundreds of thousands turned out earlier in the week, turnout over the weekend was comparably light. One could say, though perhaps too hastily, at that point, that the revolution was losing steam. The rallies held earlier last week were organized in advance. Those held on the weekend were not. On Thursday we'll see if opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi Khameneh's call for a general strike is a success and, perhaps consequently, whether the opposition has regained the momentum.

Today, as noted above, the president's rhetoric, perhaps regrettably, was stronger than it was previous occasions when he was asked to speak about Iran's election dispute. And as I have noted before this can be attributed in part to the escalation in violence and in part to the Republicans' accusation that the president's prior responses were "timid and weak" when compared to the responses issued by our British, French, and German counterparts. Some conservatives have, most notably MSNBC morning talk show host Joe Scarborough, Wall Street journal columnist Peggy Noonan, and ABC News commentator and The Washington Post columnist George F. Will (on "This Week", have defended the president.

He did, however, wisely, adamantly deny the Iranian regime's claim that we are somehow meddling in its domestic affairs. "I've made it clear that the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran and is not interfering with Iran's affairs," the president said.

"The Iranian people are trying to have a debate about their future. Some in Iran -- some in the Iranian government, in particular, are trying to avoid that debate by accusing the United States and others in the West of instigating protests over the elections.

These accusations are patently false. They're an obvious attempt to distract people from what is truly taking place within Iran's borders.

This tired strategy of using old tensions to scapegoat other countries won't work anymore in Iran. This is not about the United States or the West; this is about the people of Iran and the future that they -- and only they -- will choose."

Having escalated the rhetoric against Iran's regime, nothing less than an equally forceful rejection of calls for interference would have sufficed.

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