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What Obama must do now on Iran

Condemn violence, without picking sides.

By Trita Parsi / June 22, 2009


Tehran is being rocked. Convinced that the landslide victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad June 12 was a fraud, hundreds of thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets. Clashes with security forces have left at least 19 dead, according to the official count.

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Meanwhile, some lawmakers have turned Iran's seemingly stolen election into a political football with little regard for the repercussions their rhetoric may have for protesters in Iran.

"The president of the United States is supposed to lead the free world, not follow it," Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said Sunday, echoing the sentiments of many senators and pundits. "He's been timid and passive more than I would like."

Accusing President Obama of weakness may generate some headlines, but it misses the point. A closer look reveals that the president's approach has paved the way for the current stand-off in Iran and that he is supported by those seeking their rights in Iran.

Many have argued that the president shouldn't side with any particular faction in Iran since doing so could backfire. Having the US on your side is not necessarily a good thing in Iran. Washington neither wants to make itself the issue in Iran, nor is it eager to help Mr. Ahmadinejad stage a comeback.

But two more salient points have been lost in the American debate. First, who makes the decision to help – the US, or the people America wishes to help?

Some neoconservatives and Republican lawmakers have called on Mr. Obama to side with Mir Hossein Mousavi, the centrist presidential candidate who ran on a reformist ticket. The recommendation was done, it appears, without consulting Mr. Mousavi to see if he believes that Obama's endorsement is needed or helpful. This kind of reckless arrogance partly explains why political groups in Iran view America's explicit support as a source of delegitimization.

America is viewed by many Iranians as only having its own interest in mind and as being incapable of providing genuine support.

With Obama, this pattern has changed. The wishes of Iranians are now suddenly center stage. On Monday, even as its election authority reportedly acknowledged that the number of ballots cast in dozens of cities exceeded the number of eligible voters in those areas, Iran accused the West of "meddling." Rather than listening to neoconservative critics or Republican lawmakers, White House staff say that they've been listening to signals from the Iranians themselves.

Those signals have been clear, and on most counts, the White House's position has been on mark.

"The last thing that I want to do is to have the United States be a foil for those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States," Obama said in an interview broadcast Monday on CBS's "The Early Show."