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What Obama must do now on Iran

Condemn violence, without picking sides.

(Page 2 of 2)

The Iranians want to make sure that the world knows and sees what is happening on the streets of Tehran and other cities. And they want the US to stay out of the fight – at least for now.

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But here is one legitimate criticism , the Iranians are missing two words from Obama: "I condemn." Protesters and political leaders I've spoken to in Iran want the US to speak out forcefully against the government's human rights abuses and condemn the violence. Philosophical formulations about respecting the wishes of the Iranian people aren't enough: The president should clearly condemn the Iranian government's violations and use of brutal force against its own people.

After all, condemning violence is different from taking sides in Iran's election dispute. Not only would it be compatible with American values, it would also reduce pressure on the president to entangle the US in Iranian politics. Clarity on the human rights front strengthens the president's ability to avoid siding with any political faction in Iran.

Second, few in the US debate have taken note that Obama's pro-engagement, anticonfrontation approach may have directly contributed to the developments in Iran. President George W. Bush sought to destabilize and bring about regime change in Iran for eight years through isolation, threats, and financial support for anti-Tehran groups. For all its labors, the Bush administration failed. The Iranian elite closed ranks, and hard-liners used the perceived threat from the US to clamp down on human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists.

Obama's diplomatic outreach and removal of this threat perception has not necessarily created fissures among the Iranian elite in and of itself, but it has weakened the glue that created unity among Iran's many political factions.

Imagine if the Bush administration still governed. Had they continued to issue threats and provoke confrontation with Iran Mousavi would probably not have disputed the voter fraud and called on his supporters to take to the streets. Due to the perceived national security threat, he would have swallowed his pride and anger, and asked his followers to do the same.It is because of the absence of an external threat that internal differences have been able to drive Iran's political developments to the current standoff. Internally driven political change could neither have been initiated nor come about under the shadow of an American military threat. If America's posture returns to that of the Bush administration, these indigenous forces for change may be quelled by the forces of fear and ultranationalism.

Obama should remain steadfast in his refusal to pick sides and to project a threat toward Iran that could be unifying for the Iranian government. The only change he needs to make is to add the word "condemn" to his vocabulary.

Trita Parsi is president and cofounder of the National Iranian American Council and author of "Treacherous Alliances: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States."