Obama walks fine line on Iran protests
The president offers little support for protestors to avoid alienating Iran’s supreme leader ahead of nukes talks.
The political unrest in Iran presents the Obama administration with a dilemma: keep quiet in order to pursue a nuclear deal with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, or heed the calls to respond more supportively to the protesters in Iran's cities - and risk alienating the Shiite cleric.Skip to next paragraph
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President Obama and his advisers have struggled to strike the right tone, carefully calibrating positive messages about the protests in an effort to avoid giving the government in Tehran the excuse to portray the demonstrators as pro-American. Nevertheless, the Iranian Foreign Ministry on Wednesday summoned the Swiss ambassador, who represents American interests in Tehran, to complain of "interventionist" comments by U.S. officials, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
In an apt summing up of the administration's position, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters: "We are obviously waiting to see the outcome of the internal Iranian processes, but our intent is to pursue whatever opportunities might exist in the future with Iran."
The administration's stance is practical - the real power in Iran rests with Khamenei, not with whoever is president - but pressure will grow for a shift in policy if the protests continue to grow and begin to threaten the government's hold on power. Already the president has come under fire - notably from his Republican presidential rival, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. - for abandoning "fundamental principles" of support for human rights.
Khamenei, a former president of Iran who became supreme leader 20 years ago after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, plays a defining behind-the-scenes role in Iran's complex and often opaque political system. His power derives from his support among the armed forces and the clerical establishment that presides over Iran's quasi-theocracy.
Few experts doubt Khamenei would have approved of manipulating the election results to ensure President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's reelection or could have the influence to order a new vote, though it is unclear if his grip on power internally has been threatened by the recent events. If he remains in control, Khamenei's views would be expected to prevail on any key decisions affecting the future of the Islamic Republic, especially on the question of whether to deal with the Obama administration.
Mohsen Milani, chair of international relations department at the University of South Florida, said it appears an internal power struggle among the governing elites has burst out in the open, combined with images of public discontent. "President Obama has made one very important decision," he said. "He has not taken a position on the internal struggle."