"If you support [presidential challenger Mir Hossein] Mousavi too openly, you destroy him," says Dominique Moisi, a leading French intellectual who has worked extensively on Middle East geopolitics. "So [if you are the American president] you support human rights, you don't support a particular person. It's a correct policy of prudence ... at this time."
But the absence of a strident US voice has brought some European leaders – especially Angela Merkel of Germany and France's Nicolas Sarkozy – to call for a review of Iran's June 19 elections. French officials called the Iranian ambassador, for the second time, asking for a release of protesters thrown in prison.
Tehran itself has saved most of its ire for Britain, a former hated colonial master often dubbed the "Little Satan." Today, Iran expelled two British diplomats for "activities incompatible with their status." Britain responded by sending two Iranian diplomats home.
Obama toughens language
In Washington today, President Obama spoke of the misuse of American statements in Iranian media – including that the US was orchestrating the street riots.
"The Iranian people are trying to have a debate about their future," Mr. Obama said in the administration's lengthiest comment to date on Iran. "Some in the Iranian government ... are trying to avoid that debate by accusing the US and others in the West of instigating protests over the elections," he said, calling this "patently false."
Prior to Obama's press conference, Paris-based Iran expert Clément Therme warned of Tehran's creative use of disinformation. "Iran is a special country in the Islamic world," offered Mr. Therme of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI). "It uses the USA as a tool to justify its domestic problems. To take a position of distance ... as Obama is doing, pressures Iran's leadership. Why is the supreme leader focusing on Great Britain? Because Obama is not giving him anything to attack. It's a new policy, and it is working."
Some Western columnists have said beleaguered demonstrators would benefit from simply hearing that their cause was understood by a US president that many of them say they admire. Obama's tone today was seen as tougher. He said he was "appalled" by the treatment of protesters, and described the death of Neda Agha-Soltan as "heartbreaking." Ms. Soltan was the young Iranian woman whose death in Tehran was captured on video and seen worldwide.
US too timid?
On Sunday, GOP leaders including Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina charged Obama with "timidity" in the face of a new generation of Iranians that voted against the hard-line mullahs. "The president of the US is supposed to lead the free world, not follow it," Senator Graham said.
Yet most European analysts say that a patient US approach, and a distancing from the kind of pro-democracy invective that became familiar overseas during the previous US administration, would be more effective in promoting the cause championed by Iranians seeking change.
The Mideast director of IFRI in Paris, Denis Bauchard, says that "if you support the opposition in Iran, you make them an agent of the USA – a very risky policy." [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Denis Bauchard's last name.]
In a review here today of Obama's foreign policy, hosted by the French America Foundation, the US president was given good marks by John Negroponte, former US national intelligence director in the Bush administration, and a former French ambassador to Washington, Francois Bujon de l'Estang.
During a question-and-answer session, Richard Burt, a former US ambassador to Germany, said Obama's engagement policy toward Iran was "high risk" since failure could bring repercussions in Israel and by its US supporters. Mr. de l'Estang, now president of Citigroup in Paris, disagreed, saying that he saw "no downsides" and that a failure would simply lead to different tactics. Mr. Negroponte said he had a "high level degree of confidence" in the Obama team, which got "an extremely good start to foreign policy."