U.S. Gets Tougher on Iran

February 15, 2011

Robin Wright

       The Obama administration has become increasingly outspoken about Iran since the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings. The main focus has notably shifted from Iran’s controversial nuclear program to issues of democracy and human rights abuses. 
       For the first time, the administration has taken the side of protesters, calling on Tehran to honor the people’s right to free speech and peaceful assembly and condemning the latest repression. The flood of comments from the Obama administration on Iran—just since peaceful demonstrations forced Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign on February 11—starkly contrasts with restrained language during six months of Iranian protests after the disputed 2009 presidential election.
       Both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sternly admonished Tehran for its brutality on February 14, when the Islamic Republic cracked down on tens of thousands of protesters who turned out in several Iranian cities.
       The tougher U.S. language follows two rounds of unsuccessful diplomatic talks with Iran on its nuclear program. Negotiations in Geneva in December and Istanbul in January did not even produce an agreement on possible short-term measures to build confidence.
President Barack Obama press conference on February 15
       “I find it ironic that you’ve got the Iran 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.”
      "Your aspirations for greater opportunity, for the ability to speak your mind, for free press - those are aspirations we support, as was true in Egypt.
       “We were clear then and we’re clear now that what has been true in Egypt should be true in Iran. People should be able to express their opinion and their grievances and seek a more responsive government. What’s been different is the Iranian government’s response, which is to beat people and shoot people and arrest people.
       “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 freedom and a more representative government."
       “America cannot ultimately dictate what happens inside of Iran any more than it could inside of Egypt, that ultimately these are sovereign countries that are going to have to make their own decisions."
       "What we can do is lend moral support to those who are seeking a better life for themselves…You can't maintain power through coercion. At some level, in any society, there has to be consent."
       About the entire Middle East, he added, "The world is changing…You have a young, vibrant generation within the Middle East that is looking for greater opportunity. ... You've got to get out ahead of change; you can't be behind the curve."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on February 14
      "We are against violence and 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.”
      “[Iranian officials are] more than happy to talk about look at what’s going on in Egypt, but when their opposition, when their young people try to express themselves, they come down with brutality.  They have a record of such abuse and excess.  Contrast that with the Egyptian military.  I would bet on the process that the Egyptian military has announced going forward as being a pathway to a different future, whereas I look with such dismay at what Iran continues to do and just feel – my heart goes out to the Iranian people.”
Clinton’s comments in reaction to comments by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that there will be a new Middle East with no place for the United States and Israel. 
      “I find it very ironic that Iran is trying to give lessons in democracy to anybody.  Talk about a revolution that was hijacked; Iran is Exhibit A.  What Iran is doing to its people, even as we speak, where there are protestors trying to have their voices heard in Iran who are being brutally suppressed by the Iranian security forces, I don’t think anyone in the Middle East – or frankly, anyone in the world – would look to Iran as an example for them.  That is not where anybody wants to end up, where you are basically in a military dictatorship with a kind of theocratic overlay which doesn't respond to the universal human rights of the Iranian people.  So I don’t think there’s much to be learned or really in any way followed coming out of Iran when it comes to democracy.”
National Security Adviser Tom Donilon on February 12
      “By announcing that they will not allow opposition protests, the Iranian government has declared illegal for Iranians what it claimed was noble for Egyptians. We call on the government of Iran to allow the Iranian people the universal right to peacefully assemble, demonstrate and communicate that’s being exercised in Cairo.”February 12
Vice President Joe Biden on February 11
      "I say to our Iranian friends: let your people march, let your people speak, release your people from jail, let them have a voice."
 White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on February 11
      “I think we have all seen reports that -- over the past many days that there -- those in Iran have and want to march and demonstrate peacefully.  The government of Iran, again, has met those -- the concerns of its people with threatening to kill them.  Again, I think it speaks volumes as to what -- it speaks volumes to the grip that they have, or lack thereof, on the popular beliefs of their own people.”
      "The Iranian government should allow the Iranian people to exercise the very same right of peaceful assembly and the ability to communicate their desires."
National Security Council spokesperson Tommy Vietor on February 11
      "The recent arrests [of opponents] and effort to block international media outlets underscores the hypocrisy of the Iranian leadership."
      "For all of its empty talk about Egypt, the government of Iran should allow the Iranian people the same universal right to peacefully assemble, demonstrate and communicate in Tehran that the people are exercising in Cairo.”
Robin Wright, who has visited Iran regularly since 1973, is a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.