Is Obama's tough talk enough to help Iran's protesters?

President Obama on Tuesday chastised Iran for seeking to stifle protesters with beatings and tear gas. Some critics say he needs to act more forcefully against Iran's theocratic government.

Charles Dharapak/AP
During a news conference at the White House Tuesday, President Barack Obama spoke in support of nonviolent demonstrators in Iran, but stopped short of calling for an overthrow of the Iranian government.

President Obama on Tuesday spoke carefully about demonstrations in Iran, lending support to peaceful Iranian protesters but refraining from calling for the overthrow of the current Tehran regime.

It’s ironic that Iran’s leaders have celebrated the Egyptian revolution that brought down Hosni Mubarak, while in turn beating and tear-gassing those in their own country who want political change, said the US chief executive. In recent days, tens of thousands of Iranians inspired by events in Egypt have taken to the streets, but security forces have responded with violence, leaving dozens injured and at least one demonstrator dead.

“My hope and expectation is that we’re going to continue to see the people of Iran have the courage to be able to express their yearning for greater freedoms and a more representative government, understanding that America cannot ultimately dictate what happens inside of Iran any more than it could inside of Egypt,” said Mr. Obama at a White House press conference.

Should the US respond more forcefully to what’s happening in Iran? Some critics say yes, arguing that the White House is fumbling an opportunity to take a clear stand in favor of uprooting Iran’s theocratic government.

This timidity is a repetition of the events of 2009, when Green Revolution protests erupted in Iran but the US said little, according to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida, the new House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman.

“The regime’s oppression of the Iranian people has only grown since the rigged elections and suppressed demonstrations of 2009. The US made a mistake then by not voicing full and vigorous support for Iranians demanding freedom and democracy. We cannot make that mistake again,” said Representative Ros-Lehtinen in a statement.

Ros-Lehtinen called on the Obama administration to use every tool at its disposal to sanction Iranian officials responsible for human rights violations. She urged the US to extend the current travel ban on top Iranian leaders down through the ranks to lower-level officials also deemed responsible for oppressing the Iranian people.

It’s possible that in the long run Egypt’s revolution could herald a wave of democratization throughout the Middle East, say some experts.

“It is conceivable the scenes from Tunis and Cairo could eventually serve as a rallying cry for a reenergized Green Movement in Iran,” writes Stephen Grand, director, US Relations with the Islamic World, at the Brookings Institution.

The problem for Obama is that Iran is not Egypt per se. The Iranian theocracy is not an aged power structure that long ago decayed from within, leaving a shell easily toppled by the winds of change.

For the short run at least, Tehran has the will, and the power, to use force against its peaceful demonstrators. Until recent days security forces had successfully prevented Green Movement protesters from mounting large marches in commemoration of their 2009 uprising. On Monday, riot police beat protesters and fired tear gas in an attempt to tamp down the uprising before it has a chance to gain momentum.

In Egypt, the military served as an intermediary between the people and the regime, ushering President Mubarak into retirement. In Iran, the regime has its own military, the Revolutionary Guard, which will serve as the current leadership’s ultimate protection.

On Tuesday, a large majority of Iran’s parliament condemned Monday’s mass protests and called for the execution of prominent opposition leaders Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Since 2004, the US State Department has spent about $60 million on democracy promotion efforts for Iran, according to a recent Congressional Research Service report. This money has gone to some 26 organizations based in the US and Europe. State Department officials will not publicly name the groups for security reasons.

Iran asserts that such spending violates the Algiers Accords – the agreement that ended the Iranian hostage crisis and that provides for noninterference in each other's affairs. In the past, Tehran has arrested civil society activists alleged to be receiving US democracy promotion funds. Iranian officials point to the US spending as backing for their insistence that foreign influences are behind the Iranian opposition.

“Many have consistently questioned the effectiveness of such funding,” concludes the CRS study. “In the view of many experts US funds would make the aid recipients less attractive to most Iranians.”

But in one sense, at least, Iran is like Egypt. In Egypt, a demographic bulge of young people frustrated with the country’s stagnation was a powerful force behind protests. Iran has a similar demographic bulge of youths born in the heady days after the 1979 overthrow of the Shah.

“These are the young people who were fueling the protests that we saw two years ago in Iran, and they’re going to be continuing to fuel protests,” said Ragui Assaad, a demographic expert and profess at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, in an interview on the Council of Foreign Relations website.

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