Iran General NewsBit by careful bit, Obama toughens stance on Iran

Bit by careful bit, Obama toughens stance on Iran


ImageNew York Times: In his first public comments in the aftermath of Iran’s elections, President Obama pledged early last week to “continue to pursue a tough, direct dialogue” between the United States and the Iranian government.

The New York Times

White House Memo

Published: June 25, 2009

ImageWASHINGTON — In his first public comments in the aftermath of Iran’s elections, President Obama pledged early last week to “continue to pursue a tough, direct dialogue” between the United States and the Iranian government.

Fast-forward eight days, hundreds of thousands of Iranian protesters, a vicious crackdown and one haunting videotaped death of a 26-year-old Iranian woman. At a White House news conference on Tuesday, Mr. Obama was unsparing in his criticism of the Iranian government’s handling of the post-election demonstrations. Pressed by a reporter about whether he would still try to engage Iranian officials, Mr. Obama sounded a little less emphatic and a lot less certain.

“That’s a choice the Iranians are going to have to make,” he said.

Throughout the Iranian crisis, Mr. Obama has tried to strike a difficult balance. On one hand, he has carefully modulated his response to minimize the chances that the Iranian government will cast the conflict as one driven by meddling from the United States, and to avoid closing off the possibility of talks with Iran over curbing its nuclear program, a signature element of his foreign policy since his election.

On the other hand, he has had to avoid appearing tone-deaf to the potential emergence of a democracy movement in Iran and to keep his political opponents from casting him as weak in foreign affairs.

The result has been a gradually evolving message that at times has seemed strained, drawing some of the harshest criticism, especially from conservatives, since he took office. White House officials counter that Mr. Obama has struck the best possible course so far, by keeping America’s national security interests paramount while still articulating his belief in the pro-democracy protesters in Iran and his support for them.

Understanding clearly why Mr. Obama is still taking such pains to keep the door open to the Iranian government requires rewinding back to July 23, 2007, and Charleston, S.C.

During a Democratic presidential debate at the Citadel, Mr. Obama and the other candidates were asked if, during their first year as president, they would be willing to meet without preconditions with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea.

“I would,” Mr. Obama replied. “And the reason is this: that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them, which has been the guiding principle of this administration, is ridiculous.”

His comments drew some barbs from his rivals, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, now his subordinate, who called the stance naïve. But Mr. Obama refused to back down, establishing the pragmatic tone he would set on Iran.

Mr. Obama still believes in engagement with Iran, senior administration officials said Wednesday. “It makes no sense to completely rule out engagement,” a senior White House official said. “Why is it considered being tough to not talk to somebody? It’s the opposite. When you don’t talk to somebody, you’re ruling out the use of something that could strengthen you.”

But the officials, speaking only on the condition of anonymity, pointed to Mr. Obama’s own words on Tuesday, when he said that Iran’s response to his overtures was “not encouraging.” As each day passes and the Iranian leaders crack down harder on unarmed protesters in Tehran, the door closes a little more, administration officials said.

They and European diplomats acknowledged that the possibility of a fruitful exchange between the West and Iran over the nuclear issue was becoming remoter every day. But the White House and the West are calculating that if that bears out, Mr. Obama’s measured stance will put the United States in a far better position to get Russia and China to agree to tough sanctions against Iran than if Mr. Obama had struck a strident note early on.

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