Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged President Obama for two days to toughen his language on Iran before he did so, and then was surprised when he condemned Iran’s crackdown on demonstrators last week, administration officials say.
At his June 23 news conference, Mr. Obama said he was “appalled and outraged” by Iranian behavior and “strongly condemned” the violence against anti-government demonstrators. Up until then, Mr. Obama and other administration officials had taken a softer line, expressing “deep concern” about the situation and calling on Iran to “respect the dignity of its own people.”
Behind the scenes, the officials, who spoke on the condition that they not be named because they were discussing internal deliberations, said Mrs. Clinton had been advocating the stronger U.S. response, but the president resisted. When he finally took her advice, the aides said, he did so without informing her first.
This was the first known example of awkwardness between the two former rivals for the Democratic nomination for president since they made up following Mr. Obama’s election. The disagreement also gave some insight into the Obama administration’s foreign policy decision-making process five months into its term.
The officials said they were familiar with the language Mr. Obama used in his news conference because it was sent to the State Department a day earlier, but that Mrs. Clinton did not know until he uttered the words that he would choose that moment to make them public.
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“It was a happy surprise,” one administration official said. “It was echoing the line the secretary had been pushing for a couple of days.”
Another official said Mr. Obama apparently did not make the final decision to go ahead with the tougher stance until shortly before his remarks.
“I don’t think he himself had decided to do it until he did it, but we knew full well it was headed that way, because the White House sent over the actual language he’d use if he chose to take that line for folks to review and weigh in on, which State did,” the second official said.
The White House and the State Department declined to comment publicly on Mrs. Clinton’s “private advice” to Mr. Obama and their internal communications.
Key congressional Republicans - most prominently Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who was Mr. Obama’s opponent in last year’s election - criticized the president for being too “timid” and failing to speak out early against the Iranian regime’s crackdown on protests following the disputed June 12 presidential election.
Mr. Obama initially said he did not want to appear to be interfering in Iran’s internal affairs and provide ammunition to the regime, which tends to blame the United States and other Western countries for any unrest. In addition, he knew he would most likely have to deal with the current government as part of the West’s efforts to prevent Iran from producing a nuclear weapon, officials said.
“On the one hand, he may have felt that the United States should naturally criticize the Iranian government’s violent crackdown on the protesters,” said Alireza Nader, an analyst at the Rand Corp. “On the other, he acknowledged that the U.S. was still willing to engage with Iran in the future. Strong U.S. criticism of the Iranian government could jeopardize future negotiations.”
Mrs. Clinton agreed with the president, but she thought it was time to get tougher after the June 20 killing of a young woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, on a Tehran street, officials said. A video of the killing was widely viewed on the Internet.
At the same time, they added, she was content to leave the decision to Mr. Obama, because she understood that he bore ultimate responsibility for any consequences.