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The Education of Barack Obama By: Gregory Gethard
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, June 26, 2009

One June 12, Iran’s population headed to the polls; over the next few days, an unexpected Green Revolution erupted, as millions took to the streets in protest to a vote that many say was a blatant fraud. The protesters faced incredible adversity; opposition leaders were jailed, cell phones and Internet services were cut off, independent journalists were banished and the regime’s police and militias beat and shot its own citizens.


It was not until Tuesday, June 23rd until President Barack Obama made a stern rebuke of the tactics of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and presumptive President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At a press conference, Obama said that he was “appalled and outrage” at the brutality but added that there was still a “peaceful path” that Iran’s government could take to resolve this crisis.


Under most circumstances, a president making tough remarks in reference to street-fighting after a corrupt election would not be seen out of the ordinary. However, Obama’s Tuesday press conference was an about face from his previous attitudes on Iran’s tumult.


For several days, Obama had been criticized by many for not taking a tougher stance on Iran. Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham both said Obama was “timid” and “weak” in his initial response. Many pundits made mention of how European Union leaders, in particular French President Nicolas Sarkozy, condemned the Iranian government’s actions while Obama stood off to the side. Many Congressional Democrats broke ranks with the President and his “measured response” and voted to support resolutions that reaffirmed America’s support of Iranians seeking basic human rights and freedoms, while also blasting Iran’s censorship of opposition leaders and media.


Did Obama become tougher on Iran’s leadership due to the increased political scrutiny? When asked by a member of the media if McCain’s criticism forced him to change his stance, Obama responded by rhetorically asking, “What do you think?”


The past few weeks have taught Obama a tough lesson, one of his own doing.


Since his ascent to the presidency, Obama has tried to warm ties with Iran in hopes to bring it to the nuclear arms negotiation table. However, it was clear to many that this was doomed to failure from the start. Since his election, Iran has shown no interest in Obama’s invitation; in many ways, the regime only increased its belligerence.


One example of this comes from April’s U.N. Conference on Racism, held in Geneva. Ahmadinejad used his bully pulpit at this forum to make anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli comments; in response, dozens of delegates walked off as he spoke, one protester even threw a rubber clown nose at Iran’s president. America’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations panned Ahmadinejad’s speech. Al-Jazeera’s Tehran correspondent said that it did not play well at home.

But, still, the Obama administration said it wanted to continue its attempts to keep an open dialogue with Tehran. And, according to both The Guardian and the Washington Times, Obama personally reached out to Khamenei in early May, writing a letter to him delivered through back channels. Details of this letter have yet to be made public; however, sources said that the letter “laid out the prospect of cooperation in regional and bilateral relations” while also touching on the nuclear weapons issue. It is not known if Iran responded.


In early June, Obama made his famed “Cairo” speech. During this speech, Obama strikes a conciliatory tone while addressing America’s involvement in the 1958 coup that brought the Shah to power. He also said that Iran had a right to pursue nuclear power, as long as it fell under the rules of the non-proliferation treaty. But, perhaps most importantly, he says:


It will be hard to overcome decades of mistrust, but we will proceed with courage, rectitude and resolve. There will be many issues to discuss between our two countries, and we are willing to move forward without preconditions on the basis of mutual respect.


Despite Obama’s many overtures, not once did Iran respond. And Iran’s continued cold-shoulder came well before the June 12 election, when Khamenei’s and Ahmadinejad’s grip on the nation was firm and unquestioned.


It should have become clear by then that Iran had no interest in Obama’s Sunshine Policy; this was a regime that was hell bent on gaining regional hegemony by any means necessary and had no plans of ending its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The last thing it ever intended was to make amends with The Great Satan or “the Zionists.” In the few months of his presidency, this should have become clear to Obama. His desire to become friendly with Iran was a one-sided goal that never had any realistic chance of happening.


The aftermath of June 12 should have been a signal for the Obama administration to change its path immediately. Many pundits had predicted that Mir Hossein Mousavi had a chance at winning the election; he was seen as a “reformist” who, while not being particularly open to friendly ties with America, did want to focus on domestic issues while giving more rights to Iran’s citizenry.


As it became more and more clear that, most likely, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad perpetrated a huge electoral fraud, hundreds of thousands took to the streets. In response, the regime booted out journalists, shut down cell phone and Internet communication, arrested opposition leaders, and had its forces start to beat protestors and literally chase them into their home. Ahmadinejad referred to them as “dust.”


Four days after the election, Obama made his first public comments about Iran. When being interviewed on CNBC, he said that the difference between Mousavi and Ahmadinejad “may not be as great as advertised.” Later on, at a press conference, Obama said he did not want to be seen as “meddling” in Iran’s affairs. These statements came despite the millions who flooded Tehran’s streets in protest, literally putting their lives in danger in order to show their support for Mousavi.


Obama and his team continued to keep a low-profile during the week; however, Iran found itself embroiled in more unrest. During this tumult, Khameini sermonized at Friday prayers about the election’s aftermath, promising to crackdown on any protesters. And, despite Obama’s insistence on not placing America in the center of Iran’s electoral situation, the Ayotollah cast blame for the entire uprising on American/British/Zionist interests, which many pundits felt inevitable. Obama’s response to this was once again non-committal, saying that “the world is watching.”


The world was indeed watching as Tehran erupted into utter chaos; videos of Basiji militia members attacking citizens were widely available on YouTube. By far, the most well-known one showed the death of Neda Agha Soltan, a young girl who was repeatedly shot by a Basiji.


On Tuesday, Obama mentioned “Neda,” as she has become known throughout the world. Perhaps this was the breaking point for him; his silence didn’t prevent the grotesque actions of Iran’s government, and there’s no way to ever know what would have happened if he took a strong stance in support of The Sea of Green as soon as the uprisings began.


It’s clear, however, that Obama has had a crash course on Iran. Has he learned that kind gestures to this regime go unanswered? Has he learned that being silent when a dictatorship is oppressing its citizenry is the same as compliance? The education of Barack Obama continues.

Gregory Gethard is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer.

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