Obama careful in criticism of Iranian crackdown on 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 Writers
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; 10:42 PM

President Obama cautiously criticized the Iranian government Tuesday for carrying out a deadly crackdown on street demonstrations, as hard-line legislators in Tehran called for the execution of several prominent opposition leaders.

Obama's careful formulation - calling on the government to allow protesters to express their grievances but stopping short of calling for a change in leadership - highlighted the sharp differences between the political dynamic that his administration faces in Iran and the one that shaped the recent revolt in Egypt.

In Egypt, Obama had to balance the United States' long-standing support for a secular ally against the reality that popular backing for President Hosni Mubarak had all but evaporated. But in Iran, Obama confronts an Islamist regime hostile to U.S. interests and eager to turn any opposition movement into a proxy for the United States and Israel.

Earlier in the day, scores of Iranian lawmakers led a demonstration on the floor of parliament, calling for the execution of Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, who have been under house arrest for some time. In a statement, 221 members of parliament said: "We believe the people have lost their patience and demand capital punishment."

The threat provided an ominous turn to the Iranian unrest, which Obama had yet to comment on publicly until his Tuesday news conference.

In the days before the Egyptian turmoil reached its climax, Obama aligned himself with the demonstrators' demand for a new government. With Iran, he has not been so bold.

His call for Iran's 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, which is that people should be able to express 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."

Obama spoke as anti-government demonstrations spread in the region, driven by what he described as "a young, vibrant generation within the Middle East that is looking for greater opportunity."

In a message that he addressed to "friend and foe alike," Obama said, "If you are governing these countries, you've got to get ahead of change," a tacit warning to such U.S. allies as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and others with autocratic rulers contending with rising democracy movements.

The State Department recently began Farsi and Arabic-language Twitter feeds to better reach those young demonstrators, sending out key statements from the president and administration officials. The Arabic feed, launched Feb. 9, has more than 1,200 followers; the Farsi feed, which began four days later, has nearly 3,500.

"What has become clear during Egypt and Tunisia is that you need to communicate in the space where people are talking," said Tommy Vietor, the National Security Council spokesman.

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