Before voters went to the polls in Friday’s elections in Iran, critics of President Obama’s Iran policy — and of his outreach to the Middle East in general — attempted to pre-empt the possible defeat of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad by pronouncing it meaningless. John Bolton, the former United Nations Ambassador for George W. Bush, warned that a victory for the president’s chief opponent Mir Hossein Moussavi would “not change the fundamental direction of Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs or its support for terrorism.” Daniel Pipes, the president of the Middle East Forum, wrote that he was “rooting for Ahmadinejad” because it would be “better to have a bellicose, apocalyptic, in-your-face Ahmadinejad who scares the world than a sweet-talking Mousavi who again lulls it to sleep.”
But in the wake of the contested election and the surging rallies against Ahmadinejad and the Mullahs who rule Iran, the president’s more hawkish critics are changing the tune. The president, they argue, has an opening — if not a responsibility — to make a statement on the elections that aligns the United States with reformist elements inside of Iran. Monday began with a few disconnected critiques of the president’s silence, and ended with calls for a bold Obama statement from leading neoconservatives and one of the Republican Party’s most prominent leaders in the House.
“The president should be questioning the legitimacy of the elections,” said Kim Holmes, former assistant secretary of state in the Bush administration who is now vice president of foreign policy and defense studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “He doesn’t need to go into any great detail. He needs to show that, in the long run, the United States is on the side of the Iranian people.”
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 favor one side over another. On Monday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs would only say that there was “concern” about the election results and that “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 recognized 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 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.”
Other critics of the Obama administration have called for a statement in a more subtle manner. Early on Monday morning, Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, urged fellow conservatives to temper their criticism and try to make their case to the president. “We should hope Obama does the right thing,” he wrote at his magazine’s website, “and urge and pressure him to do so.” Hours later, in The Washington Post, Kristol drew comparisons between the situation in Iran and the run-up to World War II and argued that dissidents could be helped by a speech “for liberty” coming from “the popular and credible speaker-to-the-Muslim-world, Barack Obama.”
Pipes, the controversial scholar who had rooted for an outright Ahmadinejad victory until the votes came in, called the uncertain result “the best result possible” and said that the apparent win represented “a slap in the face of the American president’s pro-Islamist policies.” Reached on Monday by TWI, he, too, suggested that the president could further American interests by taking a side. “This is the moment for the outside world to let the Iranian people know they are not alone by manifesting its rejection of Khamene’i's despotic rule,” said Pipes. “The U.S. government should side with the Iranian people and the opposition forces.”
Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2009/06/06-cantor-022609-1009.jpgHouse Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) (WDCpix)
All of this — and a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll that found 66 percent of Americans calling the administration “not tough enough” on Iran — have loosened the tongues of Hill Republicans. Early on Monday, the most prominent congressional statement on Iran and the American response came from Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who called the election a “mockery of democracy” and expressed “hope that President Obama and members of both parties in Congress will speak out.” Republican comments were somewhat muted until a mid-day appearance by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in which the 2008 presidential candidate suggested that the president “speak out strongly in opposition” to Ahmadinejad. At 5 p.m. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House Republican whip who has frequently criticized candidate and then President Obama over his policies toward Israel and Iran, released a statement attacking “the Administration’s silence in the face of Iran’s brutal suppression of democratic rights” and labeling it “a step backwards for homegrown democracy in the Mideast.”
“President Obama must take a strong public position in the face of violence and human rights abuses,” said Cantor. “We have a moral responsibility to lead in opposition to Iran’s extreme response to peaceful protests.”
All of this has given the president’s critics some optimism, the hope that the president could be drawn into making a clear statement on Iran, edging away from what Republicans had termed an “apology tour” to hostile nations. Watching the surge of liberal and left-leaning activism in support of Iran’s protesters, some of the long-time opponents of the Mullahs are starting to see the possibility of a breakthrough, of an issue that had been partisan becoming more mainstream.
“I’m delighted if people on the left call for supporting the Iranian people,” said Ledeen. “They should have been doing it all these years. Ahem.”
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