Jeff Jacoby

Obama's restraint on Iran

By Jeff Jacoby
Globe Columnist / June 17, 2009
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TWENTY YEARS ago this month, the first President Bush refused to condemn China's communist rulers when they unleashed a violent assault on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing.

For weeks Bush had refrained from encouraging the student-led reform movement that had blossomed around the country. "Clearly we support democracy,'' he said, adding that it wouldn't be appropriate for an American president to endorse the protesters' pleas for more freedom. "Exactly what their course of action should be,'' he demurred, "is for them to determine.'' Even after the massacre in Tiananmen Square, Bush - unwavering in his commitment to engagement with Beijing - would say nothing that might offend the Chinese government. "Not the time for an emotional response,'' he told reporters. He even spoke respectfully of the Chinese troops. "The army did show restraint. . . They showed restraint for a long time.''

In reacting to the recent Iranian election and to the protests that erupted after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the runaway victor, the Obama White House seems to be taking a page from the elder Bush's 1989 playbook.

"The administration has remained as quiet as possible,'' the Washington Post reported on Monday, even as images streaming out of Iran showed the mullahs' basij thugs bloodying unarmed protesters. Vice President Joseph Biden told "Meet the Press'' on Sunday that while there were "doubts'' about the election's fairness, the administration was "going to withhold comment'' until a more thorough analysis could take place. But even if the election results were fraudulent, engagement with Iran's theocratic government would go forward, he said.

Not until Monday evening did Obama himself finally address the crisis in Iran, and when he did it was Bush-on-Tiananmen all over again - halting, mealy-mouthed, passive. "I want to start off by being very clear that it is up to Iranians to make decisions about who Iran's leaders will be,'' he said, as if that isn't precisely what the mullahs rigged the election to prevent. "I am deeply troubled by the violence that I've been seeing on television,'' he continued, without a word of censure for the despotic regime committing that violence, let alone a demand that it stop.

Like Bush Sr. in 1989, Obama made it clear that he was not going to lift a finger for the courageous throngs in the streets - and that he was keen to engage the junta, no matter how vicious its behavior. "We will continue,'' he said, "to pursue a tough, direct dialogue between our two countries.'' He repeated yesterday that he does not like to see "violence directed at peaceful protesters,'' but that it would not be "productive'' for the president of the United States "to be seen as meddling'' in Iranian affairs.

But neutrality is not an option. By not supporting the Iranian protesters, Obama is aiding their oppressors. Reporting from Tehran, CNN's Samson Desta noted that Iranian students have repeatedly approached him with an "appeal to President Obama. They say, 'Is he going to accept this result? Because if he does, then we are doomed.' ''

Should it really be so difficult for a president who campaigned on the themes of hope and change to raise his voice on behalf of the brave Iranians who are risking their lives to bring hope and change to their country? Obama proclaimed on his first day in office that those "who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent . . . are on the wrong side of history.'' If he could say it at his inauguration, why can't he say it today?

"Engagement'' with the foul Ahmadinejad and the turbaned dictators he answers to has always been a chimera; if that wasn't clear before last week's brazenly rigged election results, surely it is clear now. Iran's ruling clerics, headed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, didn't just endorse the Ahmadinejad approach - the pursuit of nuclear weapons, the vile anti-Semitism, the demonization of America, the partnership with terrorists, the trampling of human rights. They unreservedly embraced it. Ahmadinejad's fraudulent reelection was hailed by Khamenei as "a divine blessing'' and "a glittering event.'' With such a regime, no compromise is possible. Neither is impartiality. Like it or not, the White House must choose: Will America stand with the mullahs and their goons, or with the endangered people of Iran?

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at

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