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Iran Unrest Reveals Split In U.S. on Its Role Abroad

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Iran's post-election tumult has exposed the sharply divergent ways in which the Obama administration and its Republican opponents view the nature of American power and the president's role in speaking to political dissent outside the borders of the United States.

The debate over how far Obama should go in encouraging the protesters who returned to the streets of Tehran amid clouds of tear gas Monday has emboldened Republicans, who see an opportunity to criticize his foreign policy as too timid. In recent days, GOP leaders have invoked the unambiguous Cold War rhetoric of Ronald Reagan as the model for the message Obama should be sending to the demonstrators, citing the inspiration it provided to millions of dissidents behind the Iron Curtain.

During a single weekend interview, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) invoked the 1956 Hungarian revolution, the Prague Spring, the Solidarity movement, and Reagan's 1982 "evil empire" speech on the Soviet Union to argue for more explicit U.S. criticism of the Iranian government, which the Obama administration has made clear it will engage no matter who ultimately emerges as president.

"A direct parallel is now being drawn between the fight for freedom from Islamist tyranny in Iran and across the Middle East and the fight decades earlier for freedom from Soviet tyranny," said Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

"It's almost as if the president lacks confidence in the greatness of his own nation," he added. "He seems unwilling to aggressively project American global power, as if it were something to be ashamed of."

But Obama's shades-of-gray approach rejects comparison to an era when Communist bloc dissidents had virtually no access to the Western media and the world was more neatly divided between a pair of superpowers, not complicated by the set of ambitious regional powers such as Iran that the Obama administration is seeking to manage.

Since taking office, Obama has argued that reclaiming America's moral authority by ending torture and closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay provides essential diplomatic leverage to influence events in such strategic parts of the world as the Middle East and Central Asia. The speech he delivered to the Islamic world in Cairo eights days before the June 12 Iranian election sought to do that by providing what the president saw as an unvarnished accounting of U.S. policy in Iran, Iraq, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"We're trying to promote a foreign policy that advances our interests, not that makes us feel good about ourselves," said a senior administration official who, like others, declined to be identified, citing the sensitivity of the issue.

Obama's approach to Iran, including his assertion that the unrest there represents a debate among Iranians unrelated to the United States, is an acknowledgment that a U.S. president's words have a limited ability to alter foreign events in real time and could do more harm than good. But privately Obama advisers are crediting his Cairo speech for inspiring the protesters, especially the young ones, who are now posing the most direct challenge to the republic's Islamic authority in its 30-year history.

One senior administration official with experience in the Middle East said, "There clearly is in the region a sense of new possibilities," adding that "I was struck in the aftermath of the president's speech that there was a connection. It was very sweeping in terms of its reach."

The adviser said that "there is something particularly authentic about those who are carrying out these demonstrations," citing the fact that some are carrying symbols of the 1979 Iranian revolution as they march for new elections, including photos of the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"The more you keep this in Iranian terms, the better the chances of change," the adviser said.

The administration's only direct intervention in Iran's post-election unrest was to persuade Twitter to delay planned maintenance that would have taken down the social-networking service during the prime organizing hours of Iran's opposition.

"Iran is not a country behind an iron curtain, and there's a much wider range of information that permeates, a much greater interaction with the world, and a much different view of American history," said Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. "There's a certain inevitability to these Cold War analogies. But the president has been right on the money in asserting the need to keep us out of this debate."

Obama has condemned the violence as "unjust" and endorsed the "universal principle" of peaceful protest, an approach informed by a sense that America's troubled place in Iranian history would undermine the demonstrators by coloring their cause as a U.S. interest.

His Cairo speech sought to clear the air -- in Iran's case, by acknowledging the U.S. role in the 1953 coup that toppled the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh. Translated into Farsi, the speech was delivered to Iranians in real time through a State Department-sponsored text-messaging service.

Obama's advisers say the outreach may have contributed to the defeat in Lebanese elections a few days later of a coalition led by Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed party, that had been predicted to win. In recent days, administration officials have pointed to the Iranian demonstrations as further evidence of Obama's possible influence in the region.

Asked Friday whether the administration believes Obama's outreach to Iran and the Muslim world is affecting events on the ground, press secretary Robert Gibbs said, "You're witnessing something that many people might not have presumed or imagined . . . just a few -- even a few weeks or a few days ago."

Obama's supporters on Capitol Hill have argued that the Iranian demonstrators, some of whom do not favor a change in the Islamic nature of the government, should have no doubt the administration supports their cause.

But Republicans clearly see Obama's approach to foreign policy as a potential weakness. On Sunday, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) called Obama's response "timid and passive" on ABC's "This Week." He cited Reagan's 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate, where he called on Russia's Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall," in urging Obama to "speak truth to power."

In his appearance on CBS's "Face the Nation," McCain compared Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to the printing presses that the United States provided in the early 1980s to the Solidarity leaders in Gdansk, Poland, to help them spread their anti-Soviet message. He recalled his meeting with Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident, who told him that Reagan's "evil empire speech" had "spread like wildfire throughout the gulag."

"We've seen this movie before," McCain said. "And I don't consider it meddling when you stand on the side of principles that made our nation the greatest nation in history."

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