Obama Draws Criticism For Iran Response

Chris Car Ison/AP

As rallies continue on the streets of Tehran, the Obama administration is under pressure to side more openly with demonstrators who are protesting against the results of Iran's presidential election.

In Iran Monday, riot police broke up a small rally in the center of Tehran, and the powerful Guardian Council acknowledged flaws in the election but said the defects were not so great as to affect the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

President Obama says Iranians' rights to free speech must be respected, and he has called on Iran's government to stop what he calls "violent and unjust actions against its own people."

What he has not done is outright question the validity of Ahmadinejad's landside victory in the June 12 presidential vote or taken concrete steps to further isolate the regime.

In an interview broadcast this morning on CBS, Obama was asked whether he has been forceful enough in supporting the people on the streets of Iran.

"The last thing that I want to do is to have the United States be a foil for those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States," Obama replied. "That's what they do. That's what we're already seeing. We shouldn't be playing into that."

Limited U.S. Influence In Iran

There are many, however, who feel the president should take a harder line.

"He's been timid and passive more than I would like," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said Sunday on ABC's This Week. "There is a monumental event going on in Iran, and, you know, the president of the United States is supposed to lead the free world, not follow it."

Graham is one of a number of Republican senators criticizing the president, but Andrew Parasiliti of the International Institute for Strategic Studies says Graham and other critics are missing the point.

"The U.S. hand in Iran is limited," he says. "This is an Iranian crisis. There's really very little we can do to influence events there."

Abbas Milani, who directs the Iranian studies program at Stanford University, agrees. He says if anyone has influence over events in Tehran, it is Europe.

"It is the Europeans that are doing deals with Iran," Milani says. "Germany, England, France, Italy. These are the countries that are doing billions of dollars of trade with Iran.

"The United States, in the last six months, has done less than a hundred million dollars of trade."

And little trade means little leverage, Milani argues.

Nuclear Program

Still, the U.S. has much at stake in how events in Tehran ultimately play out.

Of concern to the U.S. is Iran's hostility to Israel, its support for militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and, says Parasiliti, its nuclear program.

"I think the president is rightly focused on our primary interest, which is to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon," he says.

An Iranian nuclear weapon is the worst-case scenario from the U.S. point of view. It's not clear what impact the current political crisis might have on the country's nuclear ambitions. U.S. intelligence officials estimate that regardless of whoever is Iran's president, Tehran is still several years away from achieving a bomb.

As this election drama plays out, Stanford's Milani says one thing is clear: Time is working against U.S. interests.

"The regime calculates that the longer it can drag this out, the more it is to its benefit," he says. "In the sense that people will tire out, energies will dissipate and the influence of the United States will dissipate as well."

'Public Relations Nightmare'

Milani argues that if the Iranian regime continues to use violence against demonstrators, it will become much more difficult for Obama to pursue a diplomatic track.

"To sit across the table [from] a man whose regime has just killed people, for example, it's going to be a public relations nightmare for the Obama administration," he says.

At the White House on Monday, spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president has been "crystal clear" in arguing that the Iranian people "should be able to stand up and to speak out."

He added that Obama continues to have concerns and questions about the way Iran's presidential election has been handled.

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