The violent day in Iran, and the White House’s condemnation of the government's reaction, seemed to move America ever further from the hard-headed negotiations with a distasteful regime that Obama had promised on his campaign, and toward a focus on freedom and democracy more associated with Obama’s predecessor. Also on display: The tension between Obama's pragmatism and his sense for a historic moment.
“The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching. We mourn each and every innocent life that is lost. We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people,” Obama said in a statement through his press office more direct and personal than his previous, cautious words on the crisis.
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But Obama was also careful to stick to what has been the guiding principle of the White House’s measured reaction to the crisis: That the crisis is not about the United States, and must be resolved by Iranians.
The President stressed that “the Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government,” and he focused his rhetoric on universal principles: “The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights,” he said.
Iranian police used water cannons, batons, tear gas, and bullets to beat back protests over the election Saturday after the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameni, warned protesters to stay home, the BBC reported. Amateur video flowing out of the country showed one young women bleeding to death – apparently after being shot by the regime’s security forces – and many others bloodied.
The opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi called again for the election results to be annulled, and an update to his Facebook page – which had not been authenticated Saturday – said he had prepared himself “for martyrdom.”
A White House official told POLITICO the President received intelligence updates throughout the day, speaking regularly with senior advisors about the conflict. This afternoon, the official said, Obama held a meeting in his study, adjacent to the Oval Office, with national security advisors.
The crisis marks, as much as anything else, how little the reality of American foreign policy can match up with campaign promises, though the White House was still careful to lag other foreign leaders’ sharper condemnations of Iran.
“We support the Iranian people, and today the Iranian people are on the street,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy said at a European summit in Brussels Saturday.
The cautious U.S. approach is shadowed by two moments in the 1950s: An American-backed coup in Iran in 1953, which remains a point of reference for the Islamic Republic’s leaders; and American encouragement of the 1956 uprising in Hungary, where protesters believed – falsely – that America’s rhetorical support meant the U.S. would fight the Soviets on their behalf.
But even analysts sympathetic with Obama’s careful approach to Iran have begun to doubt whether any engagement with Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can be sustained, regardless of what the White House says now.
“The incremental rhetoric, the trying to position America to be in a place to have options regardless of the outcome may not work,” said Aaron David Miller, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center “If the regime is left in place more nasty, besieged and insecure than ever, do you think it’s going to matter that Barack Obama tried to cltivate a middle road through it?”
“The time may have come and gone when he needs to put America’s views on the record. He’s about to miss a moment here,” he said.
Certainly, there can be no negotiations about nuclear weapons – America’s top regional priority – for now.
“As long as the crisis persists, there is no chance that he can initiate meaningful negotiations with Iran,” Gary Sick, who managed Jimmy Carter’s Iran crisis, wrote yesterday.
Republicans on Capitol Hill continue to agitate for blunter American rhetorical support and encouragement for Iran’s protesters, though there are no mainstream calls for overt American military intervention.
And Obama’s statement Saturday seemed to hint more strongly than ever that the president has begun to see the crisis in historic dimensions. He offered, for the first time, an American point of reference for the Iranians, and employed a quote he often applied to his own campaign for the White House.
“Martin Luther King once said – ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,’ I believe that. The international community believes that,” Obama said. “And right now, we are bearing witness to the Iranian peoples’ belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness.”