Obama Walks a Fine Line in Response to Turmoil in Iran

The president struggles to balance idealism and reality in his response.

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This was supposed to be the time when Barack Obama put America on the road to reform of the healthcare system and the financial-services industry. He has tried to stay on that course, but the new president also finds himself focused increasingly on something he didn't expect: the violent turmoil in Iran that is raising questions about his strategy of conciliation and outreach to bring peace to the Mideast.

Obama is struggling to cope with the aftermath of the disputed presidential election in Iran, apparently won by hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has confronted the West, denied the Holocaust, called for the obliteration of Israel, and pursued a nuclear program that the administration believes will lead to weapons of mass destruction. Official tallies indicated that Ahmadinejad, the incumbent, soundly defeated reformist rival Mir Hossein Mousavi. But Mousavi and his supporters say the balloting was rigged, and protesters have flooded Tehran and other cities. In some cases, Ahmadinejad's supporters have also demonstrated in large numbers, and there have been at least eight deaths and many injuries.

This leaves Obama in a fix. He is trying to find the right balance between idealism and reality—supporting the democratic process and the forces of reform but trying not to totally alienate the Ahmadinejad regime and its backers in the powerful Islamic clergy. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme religious leader, announced his continued support for Ahmadinejad. Khamenei said the election was "definitive" and warned ominously of a crackdown against those who cause violence during demonstrations.

This blow to the Mousavi faction makes Obama's tone more important than ever. He wants to avoid the appearance of American meddling in Iranian affairs, which could undermine the reformers and jeopardize Obama's reputation as a U.S. leader who isn't trying to bully the rest of the world.

"The president has been clear that this is vigorous debate in Iran between Iranians about their leadership," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters, "while, at the same time, the president has strongly maintained that there are universal principles, such as demonstrating in peace and not feeling threatened. The president will continue to express those concerns and ensure that we're not meddling."

In a later interview, Gibbs said that Obama's approach "has gotten support from across the political spectrum," except for partisans on the right. And he said that Obama isn't concerning himself with critics' chatter. "You do what you know is right, and you don't spend a lot of time on the peanut gallery," Gibbs said of Obama's philosophy.

Complicating the equation is that it's not clear how much a Mousavi government would benefit the United States. "It's important to understand that although there is some ferment taking place in Iran, that the difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised," Obama said in an interview with CNBC and the New York Times last week. "Either way, we were going to be dealing with an Iranian regime that has historically been hostile to the United States, that has caused some problems in the neighborhood and is pursuing nuclear weapons."

Obama was a bit more critical of the current regime Saturday. "The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching," Obama noted in a formal statement. "We mourn each and every innocent life that is lost. We call on the Iranian government to stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people." Obama also said the "universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights." 

But the administration has maintained a generally cautious tone as the unrest in Iran has continued.

Yet some analysts hope the unrest in Iran will facilitate the rise of a more moderate regime. To that end, several prominent conservatives, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, the GOP presidential nominee last year, say Obama should be more forceful in backing Mousavi and in criticizing Ahmadinejad. "He should speak out that this is a corrupt, flawed sham of an election," McCain said on NBC's Today show last week. "The Iranian people have been deprived of their rights."