What Should The U.S. Do About Iran? In remarks from the White House briefing room Tuesday, President Obama asserted, "the Iranian people can speak for themselves." But critics maintain Obama needs to do more to support the opposition, and defend democratic principles.
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What Should The U.S. Do About Iran?

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What Should The U.S. Do About Iran?

What Should The U.S. Do About Iran?

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The streets of Iran are relatively quiet today after more than a week of sometimes massive demonstrations and sometimes violent crackdowns by government militias and police. Iran's government made it clear again today there will be no new election.

Here in Washington, President Obama made his strongest comments yet about Iran at a White House news conference. He also rejected criticism that his response to date has been timid and weak.

President BARACK OBAMA: All of us share a belief that we want justice to prevail, but only I am the president of the United States, and I've got responsibilities in making certain that we are continually advancing our national security interests and that we are not used as a tool to be exploited by other countries.

CONAN: President Obama speaking with reporters in the briefing room at the White House just about an hour ago.

Do you want the president to step in and support the protestors at what seems to be a critical moment for democracy in Iran, or is it appropriate to step back and make sure Iranians are allowed to determine their own future?

Our phone number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in hour, head coach of the Basketball World Champion Los Angeles Lakers, Phil Jackson, joins us, but first the politics of liberation and realism and Iran.

And joining us is Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. She joins us from her office here in Washington. Nice to have you back on the program.

Ms. DANIELLE PLETKA (American Enterprise Institute): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Also with us is Paul Saunders, executive director of the Nixon Center, associate publisher of The National Interest, with us here in Studio 3A. Nice of you to be with us today.

Mr. PAUL SAUNDERS (Executive Director, Nixon Center): Thank you.

CONAN: And Danielle, let's start with you. You've been critical of President Obama for not being more forceful in his rhetoric against Iran. Did anything he said today make you change your mind?

Ms. PLETKA: Well, I think the president certainly stepped up his rhetoric a little bit today, but I guess the most important thing I want to say, Neal, is that I think you really posited the question at the outset the wrong way.

I don't think that an American affirmation of what students are doing and students and demonstrators are doing in Iran is exclusive from actually allowing Iranians to determine their own future.

To the contrary, I think one really can reinforce the other. We shouldn't make promises that we're going to be - that we're not going to deliver on, but I think that when an American president stands firm with people who actually are standing up for the values on which our country was founded, it really does help those people.

CONAN: In response, the president said today - and he said other times - that allows the Iranian government to use that tired old strategy, as he described it today, of blaming everything on the United States.

Ms. PLETKA: Well, I think that's absolutely true, and the president is absolutely right, but that's always going to be the case, and I would note that even when the president was extraordinarily circumspect in the immediate aftermath of the elections and when people were being shot in the streets of Iran, the Iranian government still blamed the United States.

The truth is that just by existing, we are a rebuke to the system that is in place there. And if we're always going to suggest that we need to muzzle ourselves because people will take the statements of any president and twist them to insinuate that the demonstrators are spies or agents of Zionism or America or the U.K., well, we're really going to have to be pretty silent all around.

CONAN: Yet - just one more to Danielle, and then we'll go to Paul Saunders. It is one thing for them to claim the United States is manipulating events, is the puppet-master, if you will, of the demonstrations in Iran. It doesn't carry a lot of force if the president of the United States is not running to the barricades.

Ms. PLETKA: Well, first of all, it carries a lot of force in a country where they are increasingly the sole source of information to anybody. But honestly, I think that the idea that our response should be shaped by what dictatorial regimes in such places suggest is wrong.

If you talk to people who demonstrated successfully against oppressive regimes, whether in the Soviet Union or elsewhere, they will say that support from the United States, especially from American leaders, was enormously meaningful to them, was really what helped them get through the difficulty. So you know, I think we need to take that into account as well.

CONAN: Paul Saunders joins us here in Studio 3A, and you wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post that argued we need to be careful about what we say.

Mr. SAUNDERS: That's right. I think we do need to be careful, and you know, I would certainly agree with Danielle that the Iranian regime will say whatever it wants to say, regardless of what the president and other American officials say.

I guess, you know, the question is to what extent do people in Iran believe them, and there's something to be said for being in a position to catch the Iranian government quite clearly lying to its own people in a way that they recognize by perhaps exercising a little bit more restraint ourselves.

But more generally, I guess where I would disagree with Danielle is in her characterization of not saying anything or perhaps limiting ourselves to what the president has said already, which I think with the addition of what he said today was rather tough, is that we're somehow allowing these dictatorial regimes to shape what the president says.

The national interests of the United States are shaping what the president says, not dictators in Iran who, to my knowledge, aren't really involved in editing and preparing his comments. The president is saying what he's saying, and I'm sure that Danielle would agree with me, because of his sense of what is the best way to advance American interests, not because he supports Mr. Ahmadinejad or wants to side with the Iranian regime or a number of the other things that some of the critics have suggested.

CONAN: Nevertheless, she is - Danielle Pletka is right when she says we sometimes dismiss it as mere rhetoric. It was not mere rhetoric when Ronald Reagan said, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall. It did send an electric current through the old Soviet Union.

Mr. SAUNDERS: It's quite clear, I think, that rhetoric can have an impact and that American rhetoric can have an impact, and in certain circumstances it can have an important impact.

I think we need to keep a sense of perspective, though, about our own rhetoric and not be taken in with by the idea that people in Iran are sitting at their computers, you know, watching Twitter or wherever else, you know, to see what the president is saying.

The reason that people in Iran, I think, are upset with their current government has a lot less to do with American views and a lot more to do with a bad economy, in part because of much lower oil prices, with clear resentment, at least among students and the urban middle class, of religious restrictions on their lifestyles. And those are the kinds of things that upset them. Those are the kinds of things that motivate them. Those are the kinds of things that are going to determine how many people in Iran support going in some kind of a different direction or support continuing to go in a direction more similar to the one that they're in now.

CONAN: Danielle Pletka, does this reflect a broader disagreement on foreign policy between the president and some of the Democrats and many of his Republican critics? The president has always described himself as a realist, and some of his critics are saying, no, we have to have morality in our foreign policy. We have to look at the world as we want it to be.

Ms. PLETKA: Well, again, I disagree with some of the ways that you've described things, Neal.

CONAN: Okay.

Ms. PLETKA: So let me sort of try and answer it by denying the premise a little bit. Certainly I think there is disagreement between the president and some of his supporters and some of his allies on Capitol Hill.

Last week, after some hesitation, we saw that both the House and the Senate passed resolutions in support of the demonstrators inside Iran, and although I think those resolutions were very carefully crafted to not embarrass the president, they were nonetheless out there at a time when the president was still relatively quiet about the issue.

So I do think that this represents a little bit of a split. You know, to be fair to President Obama, that's a fairly traditional split between presidents of almost any party and the Congress. The Congress has always seen itself as a guardian of the morality in American foreign policy, and the president has often seen himself as the, quote, "realist," unquote.

I guess my little kvell(ph) with you would be a question about how realistic it is for us to assume that by standing - I don't want to be unfair here - but let's just say by being more quiet on this issue, we are somehow advancing our national security interests. And I do agree with Paul. I think that we need to understand that any president of the United States needs to put those front and center.

The real question is whether, while he puts them front and center, he should abdicate or come close to abdicating America's moral responsibility in the world, and you know, I have a very clear position on that. Many Democrats on Capitol Hill, and certainly Senator McCain and Senator Graham, who spoke out on this, do as well. Not everybody agrees.

CONAN: And not every Republican either, but…

Ms. PLETKA: That's absolutely for sure.

CONAN: Paul Saunders, let me hear from you.

Mr. SAUNDERS: Well, I guess I would make a distinction between two different kinds of morality, and I think this is really fundamental to what we're seeing right now.

There's a morality of our intentions, and there's a morality of the result, and there are a lot of people who want to display or take pride in their morality based on the strength of their rhetoric on this issue, and I guess that's not the standard that I personally would apply in deciding whether or not our policy is moral.

The standard that I would apply is the morality of what happens at the end of the day, after we make our statements, and if we make our statements, and our statements are heartening to the Iranian people, which I hope that they would be, and Iranian people decide to go out into the streets and to protest, and they're even energized a little bit by what we say, but there just aren't enough of them, and we have a fundamentally brutal regime that kills many of them - is that a moral outcome? And did our statements contribute to a moral outcome?

CONAN: We're talking about the protests in Iran and the United States' position as enunciated by the president. Do you want Mr. Obama to step in and take a bolder role in rhetoric or step back and wait to see how Iranians decide their fate? Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. No iron fist is strong enough to shut off the world from bearing witness to the peaceful pursuit of justice. Those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history.

Strong words today from President Obama about the protests in Iran. He continues to face criticism that he's not doing enough to help the demonstrators, that he's turning his back on democratic principles.

Do you think the president ought to step up and support the protestors more strongly at what seems to be a critical moment for democracy in Iran or step back to let Iranians determine their future?

800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Paul Saunders, executive director of the Nixon Center. He wrote an op-ed in the Washington post titled "Right-Thinking Realism." With a different view, Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute here in Washington.

Let's see if we can get a caller on the line, and we'll start with Jerry, who's with us from O'Fallon, Missouri.

JERRY (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

JERRY: I don't think that we have any business interfering. We don't have a great track record within our own country of voting rights. For generations in the South, your voting rights were determined more by the color of your skin than anything else, and we certainly don't have a good track record of intervening to save democracies, because we've overthrown a few democracies in our history, including in Iran in 1953 for our own national interests.

So I think it's quite arrogant to think that there is always supposed to be an American solution for any world problem.

CONAN: And Danielle Pletka, there are often references in Iran to that event that Jerry alluded to, the overthrow of the Mosaddeq government in 1953. The United States and Britain were behind that, and even some suggestion - we heard yesterday from Joe Klein, who'd been in Iran, saying a lot of the demonstrators said, look, given that history, support from the president of the United States for the opposition tars us with the brush of being anti-Iranian.

Ms. PLETKA: Well, I haven't read what Joe Klein has to say. I think harkening back to the Mosaddeq incident, no matter where you come down on that issue, is really nothing more than an excuse for inaction now.

Yes, it's true that the Iranian regime has manipulated history in order to argue that the United States should never stand with any opposition to that regime. And I think that it's funny because the caller made an interesting point, Jerry in Missouri, in saying that the United States doesn't have a good track record on voting rights.

Perhaps it's a little bit apples and oranges, but I would only ask the public back this question: Not having had a good record on voting rights, would you say to the Martin Luther Kings and all those who had the courage to march and to stand, the Rosa Parks and all of these people, that they too should have been silent because in fact the errors of history once committed must continue to be committed? Or should we learn from our mistakes, and should we stand on the side of right once we learn what that is?

CONAN: Jerry?

JERRY: I would reply to that, that what would we have done in the 1960s if other countries had come and intervened in our elections and said what you are doing is not fair? We had our Martin Luther Kings, and we had people in our own country that led us out of that period of time.

Ms. PLETKA: Well, by that standard, we shouldn't have stood against apartheid in South Africa either. I guess I don't see a lot of consistency in the arguments by people who take that line.

JERRY: Well, you know, we supported the government who quashed the rebellion in China 20 years ago.

Ms. PLETKA: And we shouldn't have done it.

JERRY: But we did, and the same people who are calling for us to intervene were the ones that supported us because - who supported the government of China because we do business with them, and it's our national interest.

Ms. PLETKA: I think you're a little confused there, but I think we should learn from our mistakes.

CONAN: Jerry, thanks very much for the phone call.

JERRY: Thank you.

CONAN: And let me bring you in on this, Paul Saunders, because history has played a big role in this, and some people say that, you know, too much injection of morality in American foreign policy leads us to places like Iraq and things like that. I'm not sure we're at that point, anywhere close to that point, in Iran, but there are other examples of the risings in Hungary that you wrote about in your piece for the Washington Post back in 1956.

Mr. SAUNDERS: No, that's right, and that's a case where the United States government was sending a clear message to protestors in Hungary that we were with them, that we were behind them, that we backed anyone, anywhere in the world who stood up for freedom. And of course those people rebelled, and I think many Americans were with them perhaps in spirit, but we weren't with them in Hungary, and a lot of them were killed by a brutal government.

And I'm very concerned to avoid that same outcome in Iran, which I think could considerably set back the very processes that we're hoping to advance.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Leslie with us from Muncie, Indiana.

LESLIE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Go ahead, Leslie.

LESLIE: I think that if they're fighting amongst themselves, we should just sort of step back and let them do it because if we go in and start supporting either side, then that's going to kind of let them all unite against us because they don't like the U.S.

So I would imagine some people that were, you know, rebelling right now, if we took their side, they might not feel the same way anymore.

CONAN: I'm sorry, that if we took their side, they might switch sides?

LESLIE: Well, maybe. They might be a little more hesitant to fight against the president if they thought that they were - it looked like they were on the side of the U.S.

CONAN: The U.S. is a toxic - can be a toxic subject in Iran, Danielle Pletka. It really is, after decades of rhetoric about the Great Satan, mention the United States and all that history, it does bring up a strong taint to anybody who's perceived to be on the side of the United States.

Ms. PLETKA: Well, two things. I think the caller makes an interesting point and that is that the United States has been so vilified by the government that certainly there will be some - I would say especially some in the Mousavi camp, not among the demonstrators, who are going to be leery about being accused of actually being running dogs of the Americans or the British, as the supreme leader said last week - and I think we need to not fool ourselves.

This isn't actually about us. This isn't about the national security priorities that we put front and center. It isn't about should we have a nuclear weapons program or should we support Hezbollah and Hamas. This is not what people in Iran are fighting about.

This is a really - this is an Iranian battle, and Paul and others who have suggested that it is are absolutely right. That being said, the history of most revolutions is that their outcomes are not necessarily related to their inputs, and once people are out in the street, where you saw in Iran, at first they were holding up pictures of Mousavi. Now they are down with the dictator, Khamenei, the supreme leader.

So you know, it does unleash important forces at hand. I would only make one more note about Iran, which I think does make it unique in the Middle East. The United States consistently, when polled on its popularity throughout the Arab and Persian world, throughout the Middle East and North Africa, rates tops in one country year after year after year, and that is in Iran.

CONAN: Yet those numbers are hardly overwhelming. I think they were about 23, 25 percent.

Ms. PLETKA: No, that's not true. They're actually much higher than that. They really are, which is quite striking, and we can talk endlessly about why that might be the case.

CONAN: Okay, in any case, let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and let's go to Abdullah, Abdullah calling us from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.

ABDULLAH (Caller): Yes. How are you? Thank you for your topics. I love topics on (unintelligible).

CONAN: Well go ahead. What's your question?

ABDULLAH: Well, I just want to say that the U.S. becoming involved in any matters in the Middle East now, in the post-Bush era even, is not good because it is a bad name or a bad thing to be backed by the U.S. So the Middle East has been radicalized, and if we want these reformers in Iran to have any success, we should leave them alone, and the U.S., if they back them, Ahmadinejad will be more than happy that the U.S. becomes involved because he can say oh, look, these opposition are nothing but U.S. extension, another arm for your influence.

CONAN: Abdullah, let me ask you a question, and that is that the king of Saudi Arabia and the government there are seen as very close allies of the United States. Doesn't this apply…

ABDULLAH: That's another problem in the Middle East. Also there are many countries in the Middle East that have no democracy and inflicts just injustice on their people, and yet the U.S. backed them in many ways and never help the indigenous people in these three places, all the way from Morocco to Pakistan.

So Iran will claim we are a democracy. The U.S. should (unintelligible) we have been a democracy. To be harsh on Iran just because of the results, we can argue that even George Bush in the first election cheated. You see? I mean (unintelligible) again. So the argument is complex. I think for the U.S. to become more involved in the Middle East is to be patient and to support the Obama doctrine of cooperation and good politics and involve in mutual education, just politics and wars and for some kind of a real peace on the (unintelligible) conflicting sides and the Israel. And become more effective as playmaker(ph), not to take sides with anybody. And how to build people to find their freedom and to find their ambitions through policies of peaceful means and through education.

And that's how the U.S. can become effective of highlighting their good values from the U.S. side, not troops, not to help Israel when they kill the Palestinians, not to side...

CONAN: Abdullah, we're going pretty far a field here. But I'll raise the point with Danielle Pletka and that is that after - we brought this up after the Cairo speech that President Obama made just a couple of weeks ago, and that is all the fine words about democracy throughout the region by President Bush when he was in office and then very little action to actually do anything, left many in that area with the belief that the United States might talk about the values of democracy and the importance of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly but when push comes to shove does very little about it.

Ms. PLETKA: No. And I have to say that's where I have to agree entirely with what Paul said. If you are going to start making promises to people about their future, about their aspirations for freedom, that the United States will stand with you, that we are, in fact, poised for action, as I think George Bush and, by the way, his father in Iraq actually did, challenging people to climb out on a limb against a dictatorial and autocratic regime because we'll have your back and then not have their back, frankly, you give a bad name not just to the United States but you give a bad name to having a clarion call for democracy.

And I think that that was a disservice that George Bush did to our own country and to every single dissident throughout that region and around the world who actually took inspiration from his rhetoric, not understanding that there really wasn't ever going to be anything behind it.

CONAN: Now, Danielle Pletka is with the American Enterprise Institute. Also with us, Paul Saunders - excuse me - of the Nixon Center. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And what Danielle was referring to, Paul, was the promises, I think, by the first President Bush during the first Gulf War. Rise up, you Kurds and Shiites, overthrow Saddam Hussein and the United States will be with you. They rose up after the end of the war and they were largely slaughtered.

Mr. SAUNDERS: That's correct. And it's a very disturbing episode. Obviously there are different perspectives on exactly what happened, I'm sure. But I certainly agree with the idea that we should not take onto ourselves the responsibility for encouraging people to protest against a regime like the one in Iraq or the one in Iran, the one in Hungary in 1956, unless we are really, truly prepared to support them the way that it matters most.

CONAN: Here's an email from Connie(ph) in Fresno. If our country continues to be passive and doesn't speak out loudly for freedom, oppressive controllers will continue screaming audaciously without interference. And I guess, Paul, that goes back to some of the arguments that Danielle has been making. If the United States doesn't speak up, who will?

Mr. SAUNDERS: Certainly, I think the United States should speak up and I think the president did speak up. The question at this point is what more can be gained? What more can the president say? And in both areas, I think there are real limits.

There are limits to how much farther he can go in his rhetoric because there are limits to how much farther he could go with his action. And we don't want our rhetoric to be out in front of what we're really prepared to do.

CONAN: And Danielle Pletka, he seemed to hit that limit at the news conference earlier today, asked repeatedly, what consequences will there be for Iran for its actions? Thus far, the president refused to say anything.

Ms. PLETKA: Well, I think we're mixing up two things here. First of all, it is important that the United States not go so far as to promise our own action on behalf of people who are demonstrating against the government, as I believe President Bush and his father both did. I don't think that President Obama has been strong enough. And I think he has been too slow in invoking the moral weight of the United States to stand with people who are fighting for themselves.

And let me underscore - for themselves. Now, what are going to be the consequences? Frankly, I know what the reporters who are asking those questions were looking for. What they were looking for was some indication that the president is less comfortable with the idea of engagement with people who shoot young women in the street.

That should have been something that he, at least, alluded to as part of his, you know, to clarify - I'm sorry, I'm being incredibly incoherent. It should have been something that he alluded to in trying to explain his own policy of engagement and how he was going to push forward on engagement in light of these demonstrations, in light of these murders.

CONAN: Now, the United States has issues with Iran that focus on nuclear weapons and focus on terrorism. Paul Saunders, now, is human rights even more so on the agenda?

Mr. SAUNDERS: Well, it's certainly on the agenda. I think it's always been on the agenda, certainly more so on the immediate agenda now because of the events that we've been seeing here over the last couple of weeks.

I guess, you know, my question is, what can we really do about this situation? And, you know, you can make an argument that a policy of engagement with Iran won't work, and I think there is a lot of evidence to suggest that that may actually be true.

Our problem is we really have very limited alternatives if that's not going to work. Are we going to bomb Iran? Are we going to get Russia - which today, just acknowledged Ahmadinejad's, or kind of accepted Ahmadinejad's victory -together with China to agree to more sanctions on Iran? Would more sanctions on Iran make a difference? I think it's irresponsible to say that we need to do more without really having a plan.

CONAN: Paul Saunders, thank you very much for you time today. Our thanks as well to Danielle Pletka, who joined us from the American Enterprise Institute.

Stay with us. When we come back, Phil Jackson, the coach of the champion Lakers joins us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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