x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

After the silence, Obama speaks out

The US president says he is deelply troubled by the violence in Tehran but that America has no plans to intervene in Iranian politics.

Brack Obama: 'I can't state definitively one way or the other what happened with the election'.
Brack Obama: 'I can't state definitively one way or the other what happened with the election'.

WASHINGTON // The slow, deliberate roll out of the official Washington response to the election turmoil in Iran reflects an effort by the Obama administration to strike a delicate balance between showing support for the Iranian people and not being perceived as meddling in the Islamic Republic's internal affairs. After three days of not commenting - a period of silence that was criticised by some Republicans - Barack Obama finally addressed the matter on Monday, saying he is "deeply troubled" by violence on the streets of Tehran and allegations that the government is attempting to shut down political dissent.

"I think that the democratic process - free speech, the ability of people to peacefully dissent - all those are universal values and need to be respected," said Mr Obama during a press conference with Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister of Italy. "I think it would be wrong for me to be silent about what we've seen on the television over the last few days." Mr Obama praised Iranians for putting "so much hope and energy and optimism into the political process".

"They should know that the world is watching," he said. Still, the US president was careful to point out that the United States had no plans to intervene in the internal political mechanics of Iran. "It is up to Iranians to make decisions about who Iran's leaders will be," he said. Many analysts, such as Gary Sick, who worked on Iranian affairs for three US administrations and served as the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution, said it was wise for Mr Obama to stay above the fray. In an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Mr Sick, who believes the election results were rigged, said he worried that strong statements by the US president could undermine supporters of the more moderate candidate, Mir Hussein Mousavi.

"No matter what was said or done by the administration, it would be interpreted as intervention and would actually undercut severely the position of the reformists as they would be tagged as 'tools of the West'," Mr Sick said. "Basically 'do nothing for now' is not a bad piece of advice." The election controversy and disputed victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is likely to strengthen critics of Mr Obama's plan to establish diplomatic ties with Iran. The more critics can attack the legitimacy of Iran's leader, the more easily they can assail any attempt by the US president to negotiate with him.

Still, Mr Obama said his plans have not changed. "We will continue to pursue a tough, direct dialogue between our two countries, and we'll see where it takes us," he said. Afshin Molavi, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, said the election represents "the worst possible outcome" for the Obama administration. The White House, he said, would have preferred a victory by Mr Mousavi, or at least a "clean" win by Mr Ahmadinejad.

"A tainted Ahmadinejad win - with burning tyres in the streets, blood on the streets, peaceful protests - poses substantial challenges to the Obama administration because the strategic calculus of talks with Iran have not changed, but the atmospherics have changed. It will require a delicate and nuanced response." The Obama administration must tread cautiously, he said, so as not to appear to be on the "wrong side of history".

Until Monday, the official White House reaction amounted to short, guarded statements by Mr Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, who praised the "vigorous debate" of Iranians and expressed general concerns about voting "irregularities". On a Sunday appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, Joe Biden, the vice president, expressed "doubts" about the outcome of the election but said he would withhold further comment until "a thorough review" took place.

Some Republicans, such as Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is believed to be in the running for the presidency in 2012, criticised Mr Obama's prolonged silence. "What has occurred is that the election is a fraud, the results are inaccurate, and you're seeing a brutal repression of the people as they protest," said Mr Romney on Sunday during an appearance on ABC's This Week. "The president ought to come out and state exactly those words, indicate that this has been a terribly managed decision by the autocratic regime in Iran."

John McCain, the Arizona senator whom Mr Obama defeated in last year's presidential election, urged the president to strongly condemn the alleged corruption in Iran "He should speak out that this is a corrupt, fraud, sham of an election," Mr McCain said during an appearance on NBC's Today Show on Tuesday. "The Iranian people have been deprived of their rights." But Mr Obama, who must account for the likelihood that he will have to deal with Mr Ahmadinejad when the smoke clears, has opted for softer language.

"We weren't on the ground, we did not have observers there, we did not have international observers on hand," Mr Obama said. "I can't state definitively one way or another what happened with respect to the election." @Email:sstanek@thenational.ae