Obama cautious on Iran protests

During a news conference, President Barack Obama says the Middle East should look to Egypt's example as a way to bring about change, rather than Iran where people are beaten and gunned down for expressing themselves. (Feb. 15)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; 4:41 PM

President Obama addressed the Iranian demonstrations Tuesday with a large measure of caution, calling on Iran's leaders to allow protesters to express their grievances but stopping short of calling for a change in government.

Obama's careful formulation, outlined during a morning news conference, highlighted the sharp differences between the political dynamic that his administration faces in Iran and the one that shaped the recent revolt in Egypt. Obama faced a secular, allied government in Egypt that had lost broad popular support. But in Iran he confronts an Islamist regime hostile to American interests and eager to turn any opposition movement into a proxy for the United States and Israel.

In the final days of Egypt's unrest, Obama aligned himself with the demonstrators' demand for a new government. With Iran he has not been so bold. His call Tuesday for Iran's Islamic government to allow peaceful protest echoed the one he made after the opposition Green Movement emerged on Tehran's streets in June 2009 following a disputed presidential election, a response many conservatives criticized as tepid.

"We were clear then and we are clear now that what has been true in Egypt should be true in Iran - that people should be allowed to voice their opinions and their grievances and seek a more responsive government," Obama said. "What's been different is the Iranian government's response, which is to shoot people and beat people and arrest people."

Hours earlier in Iran, a day after anti-government demonstrators defied a government ban on protests, hard-line lawmakers called for the execution of three leading reformist and opposition figures, Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi and former president Mohammad Khatami.

In his news conference, Obama continued to focus on the demonstrations underway and not on his preferred outcome, a balance he also maintained during the 18-day uprising in Egypt. Only in the final stage did he align the United States with the demonstrators' call for President Hosni Mubarak's immediate resignation.

Obama had more leverage in Egypt, where Mubarak had enjoyed American support and billions in U.S. aid since emerging from the military three decades ago to lead the country after his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated. There was no such support or funding in Iran, where the 1979 revolution toppled the U.S.-backed shah and ushered in an Islamist government hostile to most U.S. interests.

Obama's caution stems from the same fear that appeared to guide his response in June 2009: that a clear U.S. call for regime change in Iran would allow President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to cast the protest movement as a creation of Western governments and Israel.

"Each country is different, each country has its own traditions, and America can't dictate what happens in these societies," Obama said, adding that his administration would lend "moral support to those seeking better lives."

Obama pointed to the lack of anti-American sentiment that appeared in Tahrir Square during Egypt's uprising as evidence that allowing demonstrators to take the lead - without instructions or goals announced from Washington - was the correct course to take.

The administration is widely expected to follow the same path in Iran, where the public is more likely to resist any American endorsement of the protest movement than were Egyptians, whose country is one of only two Arab nations that has a peace agreement with Israel.

Obama seems to be striking a more cautious note on Iran than his secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

On Monday, Clinton celebrated the Iranian demonstrations, saying that she and others in the administration "very clearly and directly support the aspirations" of the protesters, who advocate an end to Iran's theocratic government.

Obama on Tuesday endorsed the Iranian demonstrators' right to protest against their government without explicitly aligning the United States with their goals.

"My hope and expectation is that we're going to continue to see the people of Iran have the courage to be able to express their yearning for greater freedoms and a more representative government, understanding that America cannot ultimately dictate what happens inside of Iran any more than it could inside of Egypt," he said.

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