Obama's Iran Tightrope
At his press conference today, Obama offered his most emotional condemnation of human-rights abuses in Iran. Benjamin Sarlin parses the president’s rhetoric to how delicately he has supported the protesters.
After walking a rhetorical tightrope in response to the Iranian protests, today President Obama aligned himself with the opposition protesters more directly, saying that the White House would "bear witness to the courage and dignity of the Iranian people and to a remarkable opening within Iranian society.” He added, "Those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history." But despite anticipation that the press conference would mark a turning point in White House policy, Obama stuck to many of the same talking points from his previous statements on Iran. At one point, a reporter even complained that Obama wasn’t breaking any news.
As for the Iranian government, Obama specifically condemned "threats, beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days" and acknowledged the world's outrage over images like the death of Neda Agha Soltan, who was killed during a protest. He also deliberately took a question from the Huffington Post's Nico Pitney, who had been asking Iranians to submit questions to Obama that he would relay on their behalf.
Obama refused to say whether there was a specific point of no return at which Iran would no longer be a credible negotiating partner. He left the issue relatively vague:
"We have provided a path whereby Iran can reach out to the international community, engage, and become a part of international norms. It is up to them to make a decision as to whether they chose that path."
Obama also did not dispute the legitimacy of the election, instead pointing to the demonstrators' own concerns and once again emphasizing the government's reaction to the protests instead.
"We didn't have international observers on the ground; we can’t say definitively what exactly happened at polling places throughout the country. What we know is that a sizable percentage of the Iranian people themselves spanning Iranian society consider this election illegitimate."
To give a sense of how careful the White House’s rhetoric has been since the June 12 election, here is a timeline Obama and Vice President Joe Biden’s statements:
June 13 Joe Biden, Meet the Press:
The day after Ahmadinejad was declared the victor, Biden did not definitively side with claims of vote fraud and offered a cautious response:
"Is this the result of the Iranian people's wishes? The hope is that the Iranian people, all their votes have been counted, they've been counted fairly. But look: We just don't know enough. … Our interests are the same before the election as after the election, and that is we want them to cease and desist from seeking a nuclear weapon and having one in its possession and, secondly, to stop supporting terror.”
June 15 President Obama, press conference:
While saying he was "troubled" by violence in Iran and that "free speech, the ability of people to peacefully dissent" are "universal values," President Obama seemed to prepare Americans for the possibility that they would still have to negotiate with Iran regardless of who emerges from the election:
"I've always believed that as odious as I consider some of President Ahmadinejad's statements, as deep as the differences that exist between the United States and Iran on a range of core issues, that the use of tough, hard-headed diplomacy—diplomacy with no illusions about Iran and the nature of the differences between our two countries—is critical when it comes to pursuing a core set of our national-security interests…
“We will continue to pursue a tough, direct dialogue between our two countries, and we'll see where it takes us. But even as we do so, I think it would be wrong for me to be silent about what we've seen on the television over the last few days. And what I would say to those people who put so much hope and energy and optimism into the political process, I would say to them that the world is watching and inspired by their participation, regardless of what the ultimate outcome of the election was. And they should know that the world is watching."
June 16 President Obama, interview with CNBC's John Harwood:
Once again putting the focus on American interests, Obama said that "the difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised.”
He also forswore meddling: “[W]hat I've said is, `Look, it's up to the Iranian people to make a decision. We are not meddling.' And, you know, ultimately the question that the leadership in Iran has to answer is their own credibility in the eyes of the Iranian people.”
June 20 President Obama, White House press release:
With images of horrifying violence emerging from Iran—particularly the gory image of the dead protester Neda Agha Soltan—Obama stepped up his rhetoric by condemning the regime's crackdown as "violent and unjust":
"The Iranian government must understand that the world is watching. 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. The universal rights to assembly and free speech must be respected, and the United States stands with all who seek to exercise those rights.”
“As I said in Cairo, suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. The Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government. If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion.
“Martin Luther King once said: ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ I believe that. The international community believes that. And right now, we are bearing witness to the Iranian peoples’ belief in that truth, and we will continue to bear witness."
June 22 President Obama, CBS interview:
Talking to interviewer Harry Smith, Obama was back to focusing on meddling and quoting King:
“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. That’s what they do. That’s what we’ve already seen. We shouldn’t be playing into that. There should be no distractions from the fact that the Iranian people are seeking to let their voices be heard.”
“Now, what we can do is bear witness and say—to the world that the, you know, incredible demonstrations that we’ve seen is a testimony to—I think what Dr. King called the—the arc of the moral universe. It’s long but it bends toward justice.”
Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.