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.
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."
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.
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.