Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 03:16 | SYDNEY
Sunday 19 Aug 2018 | 03:16 | SYDNEY

Iran: Obama, the great equivocator


Andrew Shearer

26 June 2009 12:05

Barack Obama came to office full of lofty rhetoric and promises to restore American leadership. As street protests begin to peter out, ground into Tehran’s pavements by thugs unleashed by its authoritarian Islamist regime, it is becoming clear that he has failed his first major foreign policy test.

When young Iranians took to the streets spontaneously to express their outrage at an election that had obviously been stolen (rather than just rigged around the edges as usual), the great orator seemed tongue-tied. His sentences – usually so rich and sonorous – were carefully parsed, spare with caution and respect for Iran’s sovereignty. The great communicator had become the great equivocator.

It took global revulsion at Youtube footage of a young Iranian woman bleeding to death in the street before he expressed appropriate outrage – almost a week late. But even when he acknowledged her death was ‘heartbreaking’, Obama’s language was bizarrely legalistic and went to awkward lengths to avoid sheeting home responsibility to the regime: Neda Agha Soltan’s death was ‘unjust’, he eventually intoned.

Unjust? Arbitrary arrest or a fine would have been ‘unjust’. Her death was a cold-blooded, brutal, appalling murder by an illegitimate government and should have been denounced in those terms, as should the previous extrajudicial killings.

Meanwhile, Administration aides had been busy explaining to a credulous media that this was all part of a calculated strategy. If America spoke out, the regime would use that to deflect popular ire onto the ‘Great Satan’. And it might jeopardise the chances of a deal to stop Tehran’s rush to acquire nuclear weapons. Better to let Europe – ever a strong reed in dealings with Iran – take the lead. Subtle, sophisticated – everything that Bush’s clumsy diplomacy wasn’t. Right?

Wrong, actually. America certainly isn’t perfect, but throughout much of its history dissidents around the world have looked to the US as a source of hope and inspiration. The outcome may not have been different had Obama promptly denounced the election result, expressed outrage at the human rights abuses and made his diplomatic olive branch conditional on the regime showing at least minimal respect for the rights of Iran’s people and the rule of law. But it might have been. And at least the US response would have been in keeping with its longstanding values and idealism.

Now we are left with the worst of all worlds. The protestors have largely been forced off the streets, and hard-line elements have been strengthened, at least for now. A deal on Iran’s nuclear weapons programs – never likely in the first place – is more out of reach than ever. The impression that the Obama Administration is quietly walking away from the democracy agenda in favour of reaching accommodations with unsavoury regimes has been reinforced. American leadership can only be diminished if that is the case.

Oh, and guess what: the regime is blaming the Great Satan, notwithstanding Obama’s careful circumlocutions. Not a good week, Mr President. Let’s have a bit less try-hard realism and a bit more liberal internationalism.

Photo by Flickr user SIR, used under a Creative Commons license.