Obama urges Mideast allies to 'get out ahead' of protests, denounces Iranian crackdown

Clashes between Iranian police and tens of thousands of protesters spilled into central Tehran on Monday killing one person, as opposition supporters tried to evoke the spirit of Egypt's recent popular uprising. (Feb. 14)
Government clashes with protesters broke out Monday in Bahrain and Iran, while demonstrations continued in Yemen.
Gene Thorp/The Washington Post
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; 2:18 PM

President Obama on Tuesday warned Middle Eastern nations, including longtime U.S. allies, that they need to "get out ahead" of surging aspirations for democracy, and he sharply criticized what he described as Iran's hypocritical response to protests.

In a news conference at the White House, his first of the year, Obama said governments in the region "can't maintain power through coercion."

"The world is changing," he said in a message directed to Middle East leaders. "You have a young, vibrant generation within the Middle East that is looking for greater opportunity. . . . You can't be behind the curve."

In particular, Obama sought to draw a distinction between Egypt's largely peaceful popular uprising and the brutality of the Iranian government in cracking down on opposition demonstrators.

He spoke after Iranian hard-liners called Tuesday for the arrest or execution of opposition leaders involved in street protests the day before, as gatherings of Egypt-inspired demonstrators in Bahrain and Yemen again resulted in bloodshed. Violent protests erupted in all three countries Monday as the revolutionary fervor unleashed by the toppling of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak rippled across the Middle East, propelling people onto the streets to demand change from a spectrum of autocratic regimes.

In Tehran, at least one person was killed during the banned opposition rally, officials told the student news agency ISNA on Tuesday. The demonstration was the largest in Iran since a crackdown on the opposition 14 months ago.

In Washington, Obama told reporters: "We have sent a strong message to our allies in the region saying, 'Let's look at Egypt's example, as opposed to Iran's example.' You know, I find it ironic that you've got the Iranian regime pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt, when in fact they have acted in direct contrast to what happened in Egypt by gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully in Iran."

As in Egypt, Obama said, people in Iran "should be able to express their opinions and their grievances and seek a more responsive government." He said he hopes Iranians continue to "have the courage to be able to express their yearning for greater freedoms and a more representative government." However, "America cannot ultimately dictate what happens inside of Iran any more than it could inside of Egypt," he cautioned.

"What we can do is lend moral support to those who are seeking a better life for themselves," Obama said.

While the United States is "concerned about stability throughout the region," it has sent a message "to friend and foe alike," the president said. Part of this message, he said, is "that if you are governing these countries, you've got to get out ahead of change."

As a result of events in Egypt and, earlier, Tunisia, governments in the Middle East and North Africa "are starting to understand this," Obama said. "And my hope is is that they can operate in a way that is responsive to this hunger for change, but always do so in a way that doesn't lead to violence."

In Tehran earlier Tuesday, pro-government legislators at an open session of the Iranian parliament demanded that opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi and former reformist president Mohammad Khatami be held responsible for Monday's clashes between protesters and security forces, the Associated Press reported.

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