The Quiet American

Why Obama isn’t showing more outrage about the Iranian election.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of Iran’s June 12 election and its aftermath.

Iranian people demonstrate near the Embassy of Iran in The Hague 

The daily questions President Obama is getting on Iran are just the kind that irritate him. The situation is fragile. The U.S. position can’t be explained in sound bites, and Obama doesn’t want to talk, anyway. If he inserted himself into the story, he would be giving President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a villain to point to. It would also distract from the story—which, as it plays out, is a good one: The Iranian people are protesting for democracy. Finally, the president needs to save his meddling for a bigger problem. Despite the current uproar, the urgent problem is how to stop Iran’s effort to obtain nuclear weapons. Obama doesn’t want to do anything that will keep him from getting back to that quickly.

Against all of this is the fact that Iranians are being shot and clubbed in the streets. As the leader of the world’s oldest large democracy, the president can’t remain silent in the face of the violent suppression of people seeking freedom. So he must speak, and he did—but he wants that to be it. On Monday, he said he was “deeply troubled” by the violence in Iran. When he was asked on Tuesday about Iran, he initially expressed irritation, suggesting he’d spoken on the matter just seven hours earlier. He ultimately gave in, essentially repeating the previous day’s remarks. (He now had “deep concerns.”) Later in the day, he acknowledged the “amazing ferment taking place in Iran” but cautioned that “the difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised.”

Obama’s preferred mode of public discourse is the careful, conceptually difficult 6,000-word speeches. On Iran, he’s trying to adapt that deliberate, nuanced style to the rush of daily events on the biggest stage yet. If America’s last president was at times characterized by heat-of-the-moment interjections that got him into big trouble—remember “dead or alive” and “bring ‘em on”?—then its current president is characterized by comments measured with a fine gauge.

The pressure to say more than he wants or thinks he should has, in fact, elicited from the president the most pointed public display of his young presidency. When asked in March why he waited a few days before expressing outrage to the news that AIG executives were receiving big bonuses, he snapped (as much as Obama can) that he liked to know what he was talking about before shooting his mouth off.

When it comes to Iran, the president has extra incentive to triple-wash each word. U.S.-Iranian relations have for decades been troubled (that word again) by American presidents sticking their noses into Iran’s business. Obama apologized for U.S. Cold War intervention in Iran in his speech at Cairo University this month. George Bush’s effort to plant democracy in the Middle East also hangs in the air. So Obama’s emphasis has been primarily on noninterference. “It’s not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations,” he said, “to be seen as meddling—the U.S. president meddling in Iranian elections.” Obama has not weighed in on whether the vote was fraudulent (administration officials say they think it was) or whether there should be another vote.

This careful approach has also carried beyond his views about the election to his reaction to the violence. On Monday the president said that with images of protests and beatings streaming out of Iran, he could no longer “remain silent.” But he used harsher language about Ahmadinejad’s past statements—calling them “odious”—than he did about the beatings and shootings in the streets: “Whenever I see violence perpetrated on people who are peacefully dissenting, and whenever the American people see that, I think they’re, rightfully, troubled.”

One theory explained by a top administration aide is that if the president uses harsh language now, he boxes himself in. If the leaders who are cracking down are the ones he ultimately has to deal with, he’ll have to explain why he’s meeting with the people he so recently judged so harshly.

Obama has been more forceful when the stakes weren’t as high, as in his remarks concerning Sri Lanka or those relating to North Korea, which, as David Sanger of the New York Times explains, is a nuclear belligerent getting rougher treatment. Administration officials have compared the delicate diplomatic balance to Tiananmen Square in 1989, about which then-President George Bush used more forceful diplomatic language: “I deeply deplore the decision to use force against peaceful demonstrators and the consequent loss of life,” said Bush. “We have been urging and continue to urge nonviolence, restraint, and dialogue. Tragically, another course has been chosen. Again, I urge a return to nonviolent means for dealing with the current situation.” (The language didn’t much change things.)

Another senior White House official says this is an over-reading and undervaluing of the president’s remarks. Although the president’s larger strategy is hands-off, says the aide, there was no intent to be equally tentative in the response to the violence. The proof offered is the president’s comment “I stand strongly with the universal principle that people’s voices should be heard and not suppressed.” The president’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, was asked at Tuesday’s press conference whether Obama would make a more forceful statement about the violence—and Gibbs went further than his boss has. “He’s deplored the violence—deplored and condemned the violence that we’ve seen,” said Gibbs.

This raises a Jesuitical question. The press secretary technically speaks for the president. By claiming a more muscular response to the violence than the president himself has offered, has Gibbs made this stronger view the president’s position? All that remains is for Obama to actually say the words. He’ll get another chance soon. Despite his irritation, he’s going to be asked about Iran again.