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Analysis: Fine Line For Obama On Iran

This article is more than 10 years old.

So much for studied neutrality. Even as he said he wasn't doing it, President Barack Obama threw his rhetorical might behind the protesters in Iran, a risky move he hopes will force the hardline regime to deal peacefully with its postelection tumult.

He also tried Tuesday to inoculate himself against political attack, accusing critics of failing to see the big picture.

"I know everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle," Obama told reporters. "I am not."

Opening a rare midday news conference, the president issued his strongest statement against the actions of the Iranian regime. "No iron fist is strong enough to shut off the world from bearing witness to the peaceful pursuit of justice," Obama said.

For the first time, Obama expressed significant doubt about the legitimacy of the national election at the root of the upheaval. Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi claims he was the true winner of the June 12 voting, but the electoral commission declared President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won by a landslide, touching off days of violent protests.

Obama evoked the searing video image of a dying young woman whose shooting has been circulated in Iran and around the world.

"While this loss is raw and painful, we also know this: Those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history," Obama said.

The Internet-savvy president also knows this: The 26-year-old woman, Neda Agha Soltan, has become a symbol of the anti-government movement.

Obama's opening remarks were no accident. They were written and distributed in advance of the news conference to ensure that the president struck the right balance between outrage and statesmanship.

Obama candidly explained his strategy: Deplore the actions of the regime without becoming "a foil for the Iranian government" that wants to "blame what's happening on the streets of Tehran on the CIA or the White House."

Obama doesn't want to give rhetorical ammunition to be used against the protesters. On the other hand, not saying enough - being too cautious - risks backlash in the United States.

Conservatives and liberals have criticized Obama for not speaking out more forcefully. Asked if his opening statement was influenced by those critics, particularly former Republican rival Sen. John McCain, Obama quipped, "What do you think?"

Obama, who considers empathy one of his most potent political tools, said he understands why pundits, politicians and the media are pushing for a harder, clearer response.

But Obama said diplomacy is more complicated than people realize.

The grays run deeper than the blacks and whites.

It's the pundits job to second-guess, Obama said, but "only I'm the president of the United States."

Which is why he tried to balance every hands-on critique of the Iranian government with a caveat that he's hands-off.

Hands on: "The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged ..."

Hands off: The Iranian people can speak for themselves."

Hands on: "We deplore the violence against innocent civilians anywhere it takes place."

Hands off: "We have provided a path whereby Iran can reach out to the international community, engage and become a part of international norms."

Hands on: ".... threats, beatings and imprisonments ..."

Hands off: "The United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is not at all interfering in Iran's affairs."

One more example: In previous statements, Obama referred respectfully to Iran's most powerful cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as the "Supreme Leader." But on Tuesday, he didn't use that term, and instead decried the "iron fist" that was trying to hold down the will of the Iraqi people.

Obama argued that his message has not changed. He pointed out that shortly after the Iranian election he expressed concerns and, after violence broke out, he called for calm. Both statements are true, but Obama conveniently ignored the fact that his comments - delivered from the White House as international newspapers were hitting their final deadlines - were more pointed than before and came only after days of violence.

With this new approach, Obama risks becoming the Iranian foil. Better that, Obama may be betting, than being seen as its silent accomplice.

This program aired on June 24, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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