More than two weeks after the disputed Iranian elections and the beginning of a brutal government crackdown on those protesting the result, the unrest continues. Just this past weekend, Iranian police used tear gas and clubs to disperse a crowd of at least 2,000 demonstrators and detained British Embassy staff members whom they accused of having an organizing role.
President Obama, who expressed doubt about the legitimacy of the elections and has strongly condemned the violence, unfortunately must battle criticism on two fronts: from the Iranian government, who accuses him of meddling, and from conservative critics, who say he’s not doing enough. As it turns out, Obama has found the appropriate middle ground and is doing it just right.
Last Thursday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose alleged re-election sparked the strongest challenge to that country’s clerical rule since the current system was created following the 1979 Islamic revolution, warned President Obama to “avoid interfering” with Iranian affairs. In fact, he accused Obama of acting like his interventionist predecessor, George Bush, and called on Obama to express “regret” for his insulting behavior.
At the same time, Obama’s domestic critics have hit him from the other side, insinuating that his response to the crisis has been meek, and that the United States should be actively assisting Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s supporters. While a number of conservatives have softened their tone after a recent Obama press conference in which he used some of his toughest language to date, it’s not enough for some. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Mich., stated “this is an opportunity for the president to come out and forcefully speak in favor of democracy and freedom, and he hasn't done it yet. He's not supporting the people on the streets in Iran.” Former Speaker Newt Gingrich noted that “there's something tragic about this very articulate, eloquent president being absolutely inarticulate and lacking eloquence about freedom and the rights of individual Iranian citizens.”
Fortunately, except for Iranian hard-liners and fringe allies of Ahmadinejad, such as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, few are buying the accusation of meddling. Chavez stated last week that behind unrest in Iran “is the CIA, the imperial hand of European countries and the United States.” Leaving aside the paranoia of discredited dictators and some partisans, the assertions that Obama has been too soft-spoken about human rights and democracy in Iran are more serious. But these claims, too, are wrongheaded. Not only do they ignore the warnings of most Middle East and international security experts, they also ignore history.
Given that the criticism by some U.S. hard-liners has garnered so much media attention, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there has been a great deal of bipartisan support for Obama’s handling of the crisis, and that much of the conservative foreign policy establishment has warned against deeper involvement.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger stated in a recent interview, “I think the president has handled this well. Anything that the United States says that puts us totally behind one of the contenders, behind Mousavi, would be a handicap for that person. And I think it’s the proper position to take that the people of Iran have to make that decision.” Another former Republican secretary of state, James Baker, echoed Kissinger. He noted, "If we're out there, beating up on them, criticizing, they'll just say, 'This is the Great Satan’…. A president has to walk a very fine line here, particularly when the revolution was built on anti-American sentiment."
In addition, several Republican senators, including Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Mel Martinez, R-Fla., and well-known conservative commentators, such as George Will, Peggy Noonan and Pat Buchanan, have backed Obama’s approach. Will put it well when he stated on ABC’s This Week, "The president is being roundly criticized for insufficient, rhetorical support for what's going on over there. It seems to me foolish criticism. The people on the streets know full well what the American attitude toward the regime is. And they don't need that reinforced."
Most Iranian experts agree that President Obama has taken the proper approach.
By focusing on human rights violations rather than on the political outcome, President Obama can be seen as supporting the reform movement without giving the impression that the United States just didn’t like the results. That’s the pragmatic approach we’ve been missing over the past several years, and it’s most welcome.
Spencer P. Boyer is the Director of International Law and Diplomacy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank.
Rammy Salem is a Researcher at the Center for American Progress.