x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Obama's Iran dilemma

Amid Iran's ongoing political turmoil, in the US the Obama administration has come under domestic pressure to speak out in support of Iranian protesters who are seen as a pro-democracy movement. So far, Mr Obama has assiduously avoided taking sides in the election dispute and has emphasised that the pre-eminent responsibility of the United States at this juncture is to avoid creating the impression that the US has any desire to meddle in Iranian politics.

Amid Iran's ongoing political turmoil, in the US the Obama administration has come under domestic pressure to speak out in support of Iranian protesters who are seen as a pro-democracy movement. So far, Mr Obama has assiduously avoided taking sides in the election dispute and has emphasised that the pre-eminent responsibility of the United States at this juncture is to avoid creating the impression that the US has any desire to meddle in Iranian politics. Reuters reported: "Several analysts said on Monday the White House was in a no-win situation but the best option was to stand back rather inject US views into the Iranian political debate. "The United States also wants to keep open the chance of talking to Iran's government about its nuclear programme, which the West suspects is aimed at building a bomb and Tehran says is to generate electricity. " 'The US ability to do harm in Iranian politics is much greater than doing good,' said Middle East expert Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Obama told reporters on Monday he was 'deeply troubled' by the post-election violence but made clear Washington did not want to become a 'handy political football' in the election dispute. " 'It is up to Iranians to make decisions about who Iran's leaders will be. We respect Iranian sovereignty and want to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran,' he said, adding Washington wanted to pursue a 'tough, direct' dialogue with Tehran." In The Washington Independent, David Weigel reported: "Critics of the Obama White House are very much aware of the fears that have, up to now, forestalled a statement from the president. As one official told TWI over the weekend, there is great caution about appearing to favour one side over another. On Monday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs would only say that there was 'concern' about the election results and that 'Iranians are looking into this.' After news that one man had been killed at a massive Tehran rally, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly would only say that the administration was 'deeply troubled' by events. At the end of the day, the president responded to events with a four minute-long statement that recognised the nation's 'sovereignty,' credited the nation with 'looking into' the election results, and pleased few critics of Iran. " 'Why would a statement supporting the freedom of the Iranian people undermine the movement?' asked Michael Ledeen, the freedom scholar at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies whose books about Iran include The Iranian Time Bomb and Accomplice to Evil: Iran and the War Against the West. Ledeen, like many critics of the official stance, framed the choice as a moral one. 'Would a statement supporting the mullahs strengthen the opposition? Ridiculous. If America stands for anything it stands for freedom. We should have supported the Iranian people a long time ago. The current silence from the White House is shameful.' "Some pro-Iranian activists have disagreed with this sentiment and portrayed the administration's silence as unfortunate but politically necessary. Over the weekend, Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council [NIAC] told TWI that an Obama statement might allow Iran's leaders to portray the unrest as a western conspiracy. But Ledeen dismissed the spokesman and the argument. 'Trita Parsi is not a human rights activist,' Ledeen said. 'He's a leading apologist for the regime.' " Spencer Ackerman reported that in the US congress: "Sen Joseph Lieberman, issued a statement urging Obama and others to 'speak out, loudly and clearly, about what is happening in Iran right now and unambiguously express their solidarity with the brave Iranians who went to the polls in the hope of change and who are now looking to the outside world for strength and support.' "But some Iranian human rights activists backed Obama's cautious approach. 'I think it's wise for the US government to keep its distance,' said Hadi Ghaemi, a New York-based spokesman for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, which wants the international community not to legitimise the Iranian regime's claim that Ahmadinejad won the election. While the Obama administration ought to express support for the Iranian opposition's safety and for human rights in Iran as the regime clamps down on dissent, any expression of political support for the protesters would only 'instigate the cry that the reformers are somehow driven and directed by the United States, whether under [former President George W Bush] or under Obama, and there's no reason to give that unfounded allegation' any chance to spread. "Trita Parsi, the founder of the NIAC who has played a leading role in the American press over the weekend in denouncing Ahmadinejad and defending the protesters, said that Obama was taking care not to subvert the Iranian opposition. 'The framing that Ahmadinejad is presenting is one in which essentially the whole [opposition] is a western media conspiracy,' he said. 'If the administration is saying things or doing things before Moussavi and the opposition figures out what the plan is, then that's a real problem, because then it seems like it's between Ahmadinejad and the West and not Ahmadinejad and the opposition. So the administration is doing exactly the right thing. They're not rushing in and they're not playing favourites. They might prefer the democratic process to be respected, but that's different than [supporting a] specific faction.' " Meanwhile, Israel's intelligence chief, Meir Dagan, told a parliamentary committee on Tuesday that the riots in Iran over the election results will die out in a few days rather than escalate into a revolution, Haaretz reported. "The reality in Iran is not going to change because of the elections. The world and we already know [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad. If the reformist candidate [Mir Hossein] Mousavi had won, Israel would have had a more serious problem because it would need to explain to the world the danger of the Iranian threat, since Mousavi is perceived internationally arena as a moderate element ... It is important to remember that he is the one who began Iran's nuclear programme when he was prime minister." According to Dagan, "Election fraud in Iran is no different than what happens in liberal states during elections. The struggle over the election results in Iran is internal and is unconnected to its strategic aspirations, including its nuclear programme."

pwoodward@thenational.ae