Obama's Iranian Dilemna

By Dan Froomkin
2:25 PM ET, 06/16/2009

President Obama's insistence on reaching out to Iranian leaders has always rubbed some people the wrong way. But mostly those people were neocons and others who believe -- despite the evidence to the contrary -- that the projection of raw power is the only way to get anywhere with belligerent despots.

Now, however, signs of what might or might not be an incipient revolution in Iran -- and its violent repression -- are making even some Obama supporters start to get a little uncomfortable about the president's outstretched hand. At least right this minute.

Should Obama's I'll-talk-to-anyone approach really apply when they're right in the middle of a brutal anti-democratic repression?

Obama yesterday said he was "deeply troubled" about the election-related violence in Iran. But he said nothing had changed his basic approach:

I've always believed that as odious as I consider some of President Ahmadinejad's statements, as deep as the differences that exist between the United States and Iran on a range of core issues, that the use of tough, hard-headed diplomacy -- diplomacy with no illusions about Iran and the nature of the differences between our two countries -- is critical when it comes to pursuing a core set of our national security interests, specifically, making sure that we are not seeing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East triggered by Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon; making sure that Iran is not exporting terrorist activity.

Washington Post opinion columnist David Ignatius is pleased:

Obama would make a mistake if he seemed to meddle in Iranian politics. That would give the mullahs the foreign enemy they need to discredit the reformers.

But Fred Kaplan writes for Slate:

Whatever is going on inside Tehran's ruling circles, now is not the time for Obama to engage in outreach. Rather, it's time to up the ante, to make the mullahs—especially those who might be inclined to cast off Ahmadinejad—realize that if they're going to play democracy, they can't rig the deck and violate the will of their people, at least not so blatantly.

And George Packer blogs for the New Yorker:

With riot police and armed militiamen beating and, in a few reported cases, killing unarmed demonstrators in the streets of Iran's cities, for the Obama Administration to continue parsing equivocal phrases serves no purpose other than to make it look feckless. Part of realism is showing that you have a clear grasp of reality—that you know the difference between decency and barbarism when both are on display for the whole world to see. A stronger American stand—taken, as much as possible, in concert with European countries and through multilateral organizations—would do more to improve America's negotiating position than weaken it. Acknowledging the compelling voices of the desperate young Iranians who, after all, only want their votes counted, would not deep-six the possibility of American-Iranian talks. Ahmadinejad and his partners in the clerical-military establishment will talk to us exactly when and if they think it's in their interest. Right now, they don't appear to. And the tens of millions of Iranians who voted for change and are the long-term future of that country will always remember what America said and did when they put their lives on the line for their values.

Meanwhile, Mark Landler writes in the New York Times:

With the White House assuming a more central role in dealing with Iran, the Obama administration plans to move its senior Iran policy maker, Dennis B. Ross, to the National Security Council from the State Department, two administration officials said Monday.

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