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Cautious Response 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."

Daniel W. Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, said that "off-key note" was "probably right about a week ago, but the situation has changed when you had tens of thousands of people in streets" in support of Mousavi.

Drezner said that otherwise, "Obama has played it about right." He said yesterday's statement was "rather artful" in citing the government's obligations to its people.

"He's playing to multiple audiences. He's talking not only to the Iranians but also the Russians and the Chinese," two key partners in the effort to restrain Iran's nuclear ambitions, Drezner said. "The more ambitious and, for lack of a better word, Bush-like his language is, the more it will upset the Russians and Chinese."

Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, agreed that Obama has struck the right balance. "Our Iranian-dissident contacts want a certain degree of moral support, but from a significant distance," he said. They believe anything more forceful "will be used to discredit them."

"Some people are saying 'bearing witness' is a passive stance, but I'm not sure what an active stance would be," Malinowski said. "What else could he do? The more the demands of the opposition become associated with the United States, the harder it will be for a spontaneous opposition movement in Iran to make progress."

Mohsen Milani, chairman of the Government and International Affairs Department at the University of South Florida, said yesterday's statement represented a careful evolution that allows Obama to keep open as many options as possible.

"Based on my knowledge of Iranian history, the United States should not interfere publicly," he said. "President Obama is on the right track. He has written a very powerful narrative without cornering himself."

Staff writer Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

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