By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
President Obama yesterday abandoned the restrained tone he had maintained in recent days in discussing the unrest in Iran, opening a news conference by reading a statement loaded with diplomatically charged words: "appalled" and "outraged," "condemn" and "deplore."
At the same time, the president and his aides made it clear that the extraordinary events in Iran have not caused the administration to rethink its desire to engage with the Iranian government in order to achieve a deal that would resolve international concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Since the election crisis began, the president has sought to preserve his options for future dealings with the government, assuming it survives. While his rhetorical message has sharpened, he has not called the June 12 election a fraud, refused to deal with the announced winner, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or spelled out sanctions Iran might face if it continues its crackdown on protesters. Obama has also been careful to avoid the appearance of meddling, even to the point of sidestepping all questions on Ahmadinejad's legitimacy.
"We are going to monitor and see how this plays itself out before we make any judgments about how we proceed," the president said yesterday. He reiterated that the United States has "core national security interests" at stake in Iran. "We have provided a path whereby Iran can reach out to the international community, engage, and become a part of international norms. It is up to them to make a decision as to whether they choose that path."
Nevertheless, the president's remarks appeared to mark a new phase in his response to the disputed election results.
"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."
The White House posted a Farsi translation of the president's remarks on its Web site, which it did not do over the weekend when the president issued a less emotional statement. During the news conference, Obama noted that his previous comments had been twisted or deliberately mistranslated by official media.
"The United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is not interfering with Iran's affairs," Obama said. "Some in Iran -- some in the Iranian government, in particular, are trying to avoid that debate by accusing the United States and others in the West of instigating protests over the election. These accusations are patently false."
Administration officials interviewed after the president's news conference said that the nuclear issue remains a central focus of Obama's Iran policy, but they do not know how the election struggle will affect the administration's efforts. The Iranian government has not yet responded officially to an offer made in April by the United States and its partners to reopen talks on suspending the nuclear program.
Iran has thousands of centrifuges spinning hot uranium gas into low-enriched nuclear fuel, which the government says is part of what is an entirely civilian nuclear power program. But U.S. officials suspect that by year's end, Iran may have enough of a stockpile to eventually convert it into enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear device.
"One has to be concerned about the fact that the centrifuges are turning independent" of the turmoil in the streets, one administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal deliberations. "That creates its own set of facts, and we have to figure out how to deal with that."
Despite the turmoil, "the supreme leader is the one who makes the decision on these issues, and as far as we know he is still the one who makes the decision on these issues," the official added, referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Shiite cleric who oversees the government. "We have to obviously position ourselves to deal with different eventualities. What hasn't changed is that there is a nuclear reality created every day."
Officials noted that the situation is so uncertain that the Iranian government that emerges from the crisis could just as plausibly be one that becomes insular as one that decides to respond to the public protests by reaching out to the West.
"What we've been seeing over the last several days, the last couple of weeks, obviously is not encouraging, in terms of the path that this regime may choose to take," Obama said.
Obama's Republican critics have scorned the president's rhetoric on Iran, saying it was too timid a response to the greatest popular challenge to the Islamic republic since the 1979 revolution overthrew an authoritarian monarchy backed by the United States. Obama yesterday dismissed any suggestion he had been influenced by the GOP criticism, saying he had been "very consistent."
He added that he "made a statement on Saturday in which we said we deplore the violence." But Saturday's statement did not contain the strong language, saying instead: "We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people."
Yesterday's formulation seemed more directed toward the streets: "We must also bear witness to the courage and the dignity of the Iranian people, and to a remarkable opening within Iranian society. And we deplore the violence against innocent civilians anywhere that it takes place."
The president acknowledged that the images of the violence have been personally affecting. Asked if he had seen the video posted on the Internet in recent days showing the death of Neda Agha-Soltan, an Iranian student, Obama said yes.
"It's heartbreaking," he said. "And I think that anybody who sees it knows that there's something fundamentally unjust about that."