Mitt Romney said that Obama was “silent” on the protests in Iran but that is not quite correct.
Obama’s response was initially muted — in part out of caution and also because he was preserving the ability to relaunch negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. It is important to remember than in Iran’s complex political system, Iran’s president is not the key figure. Instead, it is a religious leader, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
On June 13, 2009, Iran announced that incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a landslide victory, prompting mass protests from supporters of the key opponent, Mir Hossein Moussavi.
On June, 15, when the protests were largest since the 1979 Iranian revolution, Obama spoke. It is “up to Iranians to make decisions about who Iran’s leaders will be,” he said, adding that “we respect Iranian sovereignty and want to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran.” Obama added: “I am deeply troubled by the violence that I’ve been seeing on television. I think that the democratic process — free speech, the ability of people to peacefully dissent — all those are universal values and need to be respected.”
Some commentators criticized Obama for making relatively weak remarks but U.S. official argued that he was trying to avoid having the Iranian government claim that the protests were the work of American intrigue. In an apt summation of the administration’s position, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters on June 17: “We are obviously waiting to see the outcome of the internal Iranian processes, but our intent is to pursue whatever opportunities might exist in the future with Iran.”
Here is how Obama put it in an interview with CNBC on June 16: “Although there is amazing ferment taking place in Iran, the difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual positions may not be as great as has been advertised. We’ve got long-term interests in having them not weaponize nuclear power and stop funding organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas. And that would be true whoever came out on top in this election.”
Obama finally toughened his stance a week later, on June 23, after more violence erupted.
“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.”