Obama blasts Iran for violent crackdown on protesters

US president praises new Egyptian leadership for backing peace treaty with Israel; says toppling of Mubarak offers opportunity for ME peace.

Obama hand in air, flag in background 311 (photo credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Obama hand in air, flag in background 311
(photo credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama blasted the Iranian regime on Tuesday for suppressing protesters, and called on those taking to the streets to show courage in their pursuit for greater freedom.
“My hope and expectation is that we’re going to continue to see the people of Iran have the courage to be able to express their yearning for greater freedoms and a more representative government,” Obama said at a press conference, comparing the demonstrations in Iran with those that ousted Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak from office on Friday.
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“I find it ironic that you’ve got the Iranian regime pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt when, in fact, they have acted in direct contrast to what happened in Egypt by gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully in Iran,” he added.
Obama’s comments came as officials throughout the administration intensified their rhetoric against Tehran as early as Friday, and seized on the opportunity of the unrest in Egypt to highlight Iran’s own treatment of its people.
On Monday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attacked the “hypocrisy” of the Iranian regime.
“We would call to account the Iranian government that is, once again, using its security forces and resorting to violence to prevent the free expression of ideas from their own people,” she said. “We support the universal human rights of the Iranian people... there needs to be a commitment to open up the political system in Iran, to hear the voices of the opposition and civil society.”
Clinton uttered a similar message in a round of interviews with Arab media, in which she rejected the criticism that America’s response to protests in Egypt did not go far enough in backing the protesters.
Obama also defended his course in Egypt, declaring, “I think history will end up recording that at every juncture in the situation in Egypt that we were on the right side of history.”
He bolstered that claim by noting that “what we ended up seeing was a peaceful transition, relatively little violence, and relatively little, if any, anti- American sentiment, or anti- Israel sentiment, or anti-Western sentiment. And I think that testifies [to] the fact that in a complicated situation, we got it about right.”
Obama described the new governing agents there as sending “the right signals” – and particularly highlighted that the military council currently in charge “has reaffirmed its treaties with countries like Israel and international treaties.”
He also argued that the recent toppling of Mubarak offered an opportunity for Middle East peace.
“When you have the kinds of people who were in Tahrir Square, feeling that they have hope and they have opportunity, then they’re less likely to channel all their frustrations into anti-Israel sentiment or anti-Western sentiment, because they see the prospect of building their own country,” he said.
Obama added, however, that “democracy is messy.”
With demonstrations raging in the streets of Tehran, Iran was the international destination that received the most attention in Washington Tuesday – including the sharp change in tone in the Obama administration’s response from its lukewarm support for opposition activists in June 2009.
David Pollock, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, called the administration’s new tone on Iran and its efforts to encourage the protesters there “a kind of foreign policy jujitsu.”
He explained that while the loss of Mubarak had been seen by Iran as a setback for the US, the Obama administration was trying to turn that against Tehran, which had welcomed the Egyptian protests as an Islamic movement – a label rejected even by the Muslim Brotherhood – and then refused to let its own people demonstrate.
Pollock described the new US tone as one of “quicker, more assured, higher-level, explicit support” for the democracy advocates – one which it hopes will strengthen their efforts.
While the US faced criticism for not being similarly assertive 18 months ago, when opposition groups rocked Iran with protests that were put down with severe force, Pollock said the circumstances since then had changed – including international nuclear negotiations with the regime failing to achieve results since that time.
He said the new American posture could prove important in bolstering an isolated population that was standing up against a regime willing to turn its fire against them.
He added, however, that even if change didn’t come to Iran quickly – or ever – in the short term, the move was positive for the US.
“It’s a tremendous help in countering the perception in the region and beyond the region that the revolution in Egypt was a victory for Iran,” he said. “It wasn’t. In fact, it helps to expose and even encourages a serious problem within Iran, to inspire the opposition.”