President Barack Obama gestures as he answers a question during a news conference at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, June 23, 2009.

Obama to GOP: "Iranians can speak for themselves"

A sometimes testy president defends his Iran policy in an afternoon press conference. Also, he still smokes


Mike Madden
June 23, 2009 11:24PM (UTC)

Live from the White House on Tuesday, the world got a lesson in what happens when an unstoppable force -- in this case, the 24-hour news cycle -- meets an immovable object -- the elaborate conventions of international diplomacy, and 30 years of poisoned Iran-U.S. relations. The results weren't always pretty.

"You seemed to hint that there are human rights violations taking place [in Iran]," NBC's Chuck Todd asked President Obama, though it was more a statement than a question. Since the demonstrations began, the White House has been trying to walk a fine line between speaking out against the gruesome ways the Iranian government has cracked down and inserting the United States blindly into the situation. Obama had opened his Tuesday press conference with the strongest language he's used yet to express U.S. outrage. But the press corps spent the better part of the next hour asking questions that seemed designed to suck any remaining nuance out of the White House stance. So Obama didn't bother extending reporters the same diplomatic niceties he's trying to use with Iran.

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"I'm not hinting," he told Todd, referring -- for the second time -- to the videos of Neda Agha Soltan being killed on Saturday. "I think that when a young woman gets shot on the street when she gets out of her car, that's a problem." Todd tried to follow up, asking why Obama wouldn't lay out specific consequences for Iran if the crackdown continued. "Because I think that we don't know yet how this thing is going to play out," Obama snapped. "I know everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle. I'm not. OK?"

That was how things went Tuesday, in Obama's fourth formal news conference since taking office (and the first one held in the middle of the day, instead of during prime time). No one watching could have had any doubts about whose side the president is on in the ongoing clashes between the militias and paramilitaries backing Iran's hard-line clerics and the thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets since last Friday's election.

"The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings and imprisonments of the last few days," Obama said, to open the press conference. "I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost."

But the angrier tone didn't mean the White House wanted to get drawn into a debate with Iran's ruling cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has been trying to blame the country's unrest on the U.S., the United Kingdom, Zionists, the Appalachian Trail -- pretty much anyone except himself. Though GOP critics have been pushing for a harder line from Washington since the crisis started, Obama wouldn't budge. The White House is still playing a high-stakes game, trying to show support for the protesters, couched in terms of universal human rights, without making the demonstrations about the U.S.

"This tired strategy of using old tensions to scapegoat other countries won't work anymore in Iran," Obama said. "This is not about the United States or the West; this is about the people of Iran and the future that they -- and only they -- will choose."

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"The Iranian people can speak for themselves. That's precisely what's happened in the last few days."

What hasn't been clear, listening to Republicans evoke gauzy, soft-focus memories of Ronald Reagan standing up to various dictators (never mind that his administration also sold Iran weapons during its bloody war with Iraq), is exactly what the point of intervening in the civil unrest would be. "The pope and Ronald Reagan inspired people," Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, told Fox News Monday night, hearkening back to the Cold War. "And this president, to his credit, is one of the great orators of our time. I'd like to see him go to a place like the Statue of Liberty and speak boldly for this young lady who died." That seems like it would mostly serve to pump up American patriotism, though. The protesters -- who go to their roofs every night to shout, "Allah-o akbar," or "God is great," in Farsi, echoing Iran's 1979 revolution that put the mullahs in power -- don't seem to be identifying themselves with the U.S., directly or indirectly.

Iranian-American activists have been making that point to anyone in Washington whom they can reach lately. "If our intention is to help, we have to first listen to the people in Iran rather than to pretend to speak for them without ever having had consulted with them," said Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, in a statement after Obama's remarks. It's not clear whether a recent round of public appearances by Reza Pahlavi -- the son of the U.S.-backed shah, deposed in 1979 -- have been doing much to help the cause in Tehran, either.

Obama made fairly clear what he thought of the input from Graham, and, for that matter, Sen. John McCain, his opponent last year -- who has also urged him to speak more firmly. CBS's Chip Reid asked the president whether the GOP pressure had changed policy. "What do you think?" Obama asked him, with a withering stare. "I think that all of us share a belief that we want justice to prevail."

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"But only I'm the president of the United States," he continued. "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."

There were, of course, other topics that came up at the press conference. Obama defended his healthcare plan, which is showing signs of not being as dead as pundits declared it to be. He took a question on Latin America policy, in a nod to the visit, later in the afternoon, by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. He said the economy was lurching toward recovery, and wouldn't need a second stimulus plan yet.

And he also admitted, after mocking the question, that he still has a vice or two that he hides from the public. "Look, I've said before that as a former smoker I constantly struggle with it," Obama said, in one of the press conference's strangest detours (prompted by the news that the president had signed into law on Monday new legislation giving the federal government authority to regulate cigarettes). "Have I fallen off the wagon sometimes? Yes. Am I a daily smoker, a constant smoker? No. I don't do it in front of my kids. I don't do it in front of my family. And, you know, I would say that I am 95 percent cured. But there are times where ... There are times where I mess up." For any president, it was a rare confession. Don't expect to hear him say that about his Iran policy any time soon. Listening to Obama on Tuesday, it was pretty clear he thinks he's got that right. For now. 

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Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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