Is Obama mishandling the Iran situation?

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets of Tehran in recent days to protest the seemingly dubious results of an election that returned hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power for a second term.

The American response to the protests has generated fresh controversy here. Some conservatives have criticized President Obama for not offering a forceful statement in support of the protesters.

But Obama has declined to make that statement, instead offering careful generalities condemning violence. "It’s not productive, given the history of the U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling — the U.S. president meddling in Iranian elections," he said.

Should Obama offer more overt support to Iranians fighting for freedom? Or is restraint called for? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, jump into the fray.


America is a great country with great ideals, but it has not always allied itself with freedom and democracy. In 1953, U.S. and British agents helped overthrow Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mosaddeq. That coup empowered a pro-American — and harshly tyrannical — shah who ruled the country with deadly force for nearly three more decades, before the 1979 Islamic revolution chased him from power.

This history is sometimes forgotten in America. It is vividly remembered in Iran — where even moderates continue to view the U.S. with some suspicion.

Which is why President Obama is wise to err on the side of caution when making public statements about Iran. Perhaps a "Reaganesque" statement in support of freedom would inspire that country’s protesters and reformers to throw off the shackles of theocracy. Perhaps.

But it is certain that Ahmadinejad and the conservative mullahs who back him would use Obama’s statement to portray those reformers as stooges of America and the C.I.A. — a charge that could well undermine popular support for Mir Hossein Mousavi, the presidential candidate who stands at the head of the reform protests.

This is not to say the U.S. should be completely passive. Iran’s government is trying to restrict the reporting of western journalists; the Obama Administration should do everything it can to preserve news coverage of the demonstrations there. And the administration has already aided the reformers by persuading the operators of Twitter — a key avenue of news about the protests — to defer maintenance that would have temporarily shut down the "microblogging" site at a critical juncture. Such efforts should continue.

But the proclamation demanded by Obama’s critics could very well strengthen America’s enemies in Iran. The cause of freedom is sometimes best served by restraint, not bluster.


How is it not possible to sympathize with a people who stand up for their rights and liberties in the face of despotism? But however much Americans would like to see an Iran that is free, independent and friendly, there is little the United States can do to make it so short of armed intervention. And that isn’t going to happen. Nor should it.

It’s not enough for the U.S. government to say it supports a free Iran. Words alone are insufficient. Just ask the dissidents in Egypt, Libya and Burma who believed U.S. rhetoric about supporting democracy. Most of them are rotting in prison now.

So let’s not kid ourselves. Iran is no democracy and Mir Hossein Mousavi, Ahmadinejad’s main rival in the late election, is no democrat. All that matters — or should matter — to the United States is the fate of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. We say a nuclear Iran is "unacceptable." But we have long acted otherwise.

The United States should not be in the business risking American lives for some far-fetched ideal of Iranian democracy. Barack Obama doesn’t have the nerve to pursue such a policy in any event. If Iranians want democracy, they’ll have to fight for it themselves. Americans should wish them well — and that’s all.

Our national security may require a heavier hand when it comes to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, no matter who assumes that troubled country’s presidency. Obama may not have the nerve to make that decision, either — but Americans may live to regret his fecklessness.

(Ben Boychuk blogs at Joel Mathis blogs at