Cautious Response to Events in Iran Reflects Obama's Long-Term Approach

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 21, 2009

All last week, as hundreds of thousands of demonstrators surged through Tehran, President Obama resisted pressure to side with them against the Iranian government.

Yesterday, as murky images of clashes and bloodshed flashed on cable news reports, the president called on the Iranian government "to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people."

U.S. officials say Obama is intent on calibrating his comments to the mood of the hour. They say he is seeking to avoid having the demonstrators accused of being American stooges and is trying to preserve the possibility of negotiating directly with the Iranian government over its nuclear program, links to terrorism, Afghanistan and other issues.

The rest of Obama's three-paragraph statement yesterday, written in meetings with his senior advisers, was essentially a greatest-hits version of his comments during a week of turmoil in Iran. He repeated that the "world is watching," he again cited the "universal rights to assembly and free speech," and he once again quoted Martin Luther King Jr. in saying that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

There were only hints of what may come if the government's crackdown becomes especially bloody. Obama said: "If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion."

Obama has not yet said whether he thinks the election was stolen, but he alluded to that by noting the "Iranian people's belief" in the "truth" of King's saying in the later part of his statement.

Despite increasingly intense Republican criticism, and the passage of resolutions in the House and Senate on Friday that were tougher than the president's words, U.S. officials say they will stick to their current course. They say there is not much the United States can do to influence the situation -- except make it worse for the opposition -- but they have begun planning for the administration's response if the crackdown turns very violent.

"We have to watch every day to see what is happening, even while we anticipate several different possibilities and what to do in those circumstances," one official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Within the administration, officials say, Obama's cautious stance has the support of key senior officials, with disagreements centered mostly on quibbles over a word choice.

Obama signaled earlier this year that he recognized the current ruling structure of Iran and hoped to seek a dialogue with officials close to the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. On Friday, Khamenei warned against further demonstrations against the election results.

Still, in a sign of possible Democratic nervousness that the president may be missing a historic moment, Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) issued a statement yesterday saying that "the international community should condemn the use of harsh tactics against Iranians who are attempting to peacefully express their political beliefs. The outcome of the elections in Iran must reflect the will of the Iranian people."

And the National Iranian American Council, which supports engagement with Iran, last night praised Obama for not taking sides but called on him "to speak vociferously against the bloodshed taking place before our eyes."

The president's approach has generally been praised by foreign-policy experts, with one exception. On Tuesday, he told CNBC that the difference between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi "in terms of their actual positions may not be as great as has been advertised."

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