President Obama Right To Avoid Posturing Over Iran

Our guest blogger is Peter Juul, a Research Associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

With foreign journalists effectively being ordered out of Iran, the circle of available public information about what’s going on in the streets of Iran will narrow to videos and emails sent to blogs (like Huffington Post’s live blog, run by Think Progress alum Nico Pitney) and Tweets coming from inside the country. As our information becomes more limited, the debate as to what the Obama administration should do with regard to the pro-democracy protests in Iran is heating up. Conservatives like John McCain and Eric Cantor say the United States should make a noisy show of support for the protesters, believing that by being “steadfast” we can somehow bend the will of the Iranian regime.

President Obama has taken a different tack, stating in a press appearance that he is “deeply troubled” by the post-election violence and affirming “the democratic process -– free speech, the ability of people to peacefully dissent –- all those are universal values and need to be respected.”

At the same time, the president has made clear that the choice of their country’s leadership is ultimately in the hands of the Iranian people. On Monday, he struck the made “very clear that it is up to Iranians to make decisions about who Iran’s leaders will be.” Speaking Monday with South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak, Obama struck the same note, saying the course of the protest movement “is something ultimately for the Iranian people to decide.”


While this measured, delicate approach may not satisfy the consciences of some observers, it’s probably the correct approach for the United States to take. On the one hand, it couches the Iranian protesters’ courageous battle on behalf of their votes in terms of universal values of democracy and human rights rather than making it a conflict between the Iranian government and Washington. On the flip side, it also acknowledges the history of U.S. involvement in Iran’s internal politics, and recognizes that this history means full-throated, direct American support for the protests could undermine them by giving the hard-liners an excuse to crack down.

It’s equally important that Iranians make democratic change themselves, without the United States taking or being seen to take credit for such change. Too often during the Bush administration, conservatives exploited positive developments toward more democratic systems in places like Lebanon and Egypt (the so-called “Arab Spring”) to vindicate their own policy preferences. But these developments soon faded as violence in Lebanon, Iraq, and the Palestinian Territories grew, and the chaos began to be associated with U.S. promotion of democratic governance. Trumpeting democratic reform as the result of U.S. policy serves more to undermine it than to facilitate its spread.

The moral posturing from the United States that conservatives advocate also undermines the universal potential of democratic ideals and human rights. The example of the Iranian people forcing democratic change on their own, without moral preening coming from the United States, reinforces the universality of democratic ideals and provides an example for aspiring democrats elsewhere in the region. Rather than having to rebut false charges that democracy is an alien, “Western” concept, local reformers can point to the Iranian example that democratic aspirations are universal and indigenous.

By framing American concerns over Iran’s election and the resulting protests in the language of both universal human rights and national self-determination, the Obama administration has thus far managed to thread a very difficult needle without undermining the efforts of pro-democracy protesters. As the situation on the ground in Iran develops, so too should the Obama administration’s response. If pro-democracy opposition leaders call for more vocal American support, they should receive it. If the ruling elite engage in a bloody, Tiananmen-style crack down, it should receive the full measure of repudiation and outrage from the United States and its government.

But until then, President Obama’s caution and framing of the protests in terms of universal democratic values is the right way to go.