For Obama, a careful 'outrage' at Iran

The president responded to critics who accused him of not condemning Iran's crackdown of pro-democracy protesters. But he also kept his options open.

President Obama ratcheted up the rhetoric on Iran at his White House press conference Tuesday, expressing "outrage" at killings in Tehran's streets after this month's disputed presidential election.

But in doing so, he stuck by his policy of avoiding any appearance of American intervention in Iran's internal affairs at what may prove to be a watershed moment for the Islamic republic.

Mr. Obama's aim appears to be to quiet criticism at home by adopting a stronger rhetorical defense of such democratic values as freedom of expression and freedom of dissent. But he wants to do that while denying the Iranian regime the opportunity to "blame what's happening on the streets of Tehran on the CIA or the White House."

Moreover, in an attempt to be pragmatic, Obama wants to keep the door open to engaging with whatever Iranian leadership emerges from the tumult, particularly on issues of national security, such as Iran's nuclear program. Despite the emergence of the country's first real political opposition in three decades, it seems almost certain that supreme leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will retain that leadership.

"We're stuck with these guys for the foreseeable future," says Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert and former State Department official now at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

She adds that Obama is right to resist the temptation to offer specific moral support to those segments of Iranian society emerging as opposition forces. "Any cheerleading we appear to do on behalf of any of these people would only undermine them," Ms. Maloney says.

Obama did make specific reference to the "searing image," widely seen on the Internet and cable news, of a young Iranian woman dying from gunshot wounds. That kind of comment appeared aimed in part at responding to critics like Sen. Lindsay Graham (R) of South Carolina, who said Obama was neglecting his role as "leader of the free world."

The president's more forceful words calmed some critics who say they understand the president's desire to keep America out of the Iranian limelight.

"I am encouraged by Obama's rhetoric of the last few days," says Michael O'Hanlon, a defense policy expert at the Brookings Institution who calls Obama's initial comment that it didn't really matter who won the Iranian election "regrettable."

Mr. O'Hanlon says Obama was "almost too careful about not championing American ideals that are not really American ideals but universal values."

One question that will persist in coming weeks is: What impact will the protests – as well as the upheaval in Iran's power structure – have on prospects for US engagement with Iran? It seems likely that an Iran consumed by internal dissension would be less likely to respond to Obama's diplomatic overtures, Iran experts say.

But that does not necessarily mean a quickly consolidated leadership would jump at Obama's offer of an open hand. Dr. Maloney says she is "dubious" of the argument that Iran's postelection leadership will be more prepared to begin a dialogue – especially by the August-September time frame Obama envisioned before the elections.

That leadership will still be dealing with the "skeletal structure of a movement," she says.

The problem for Obama is that, in the meantime, Iran's nuclear centrifuges will still be spinning, and Iran's Revolutionary Guard – likely to come out of the election process unscathed and perhaps strengthened – will still be providing support to terrorist in the region, such as Hizbullah and Hamas.

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