- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 17, 2009

President Obama’s cautious response to election protests in Iran has ignited a debate among those who say the U.S. should provide more vocal support for peaceful protesters and those who argue that such a move would be counterproductive.

Mr. Obama addressed the protests for the second straight day on Tuesday but said he did not want to be seen as “meddling” in Iranian politics, though he did say “violence directed at peaceful protesters” is “not how governments should interact with their people.”

“The Europeans are ahead of us, making tougher statements, which is always surprising,” said Elliot Abrams, deputy national security adviser to former President George W. Bush, referring to calls from Britain, France and Germany for a full investigation of the vote tallies.

Mr. Abrams said that despite the president’s eagerness to engage the Iranian government over its nuclear program, Mr. Obama has “an obligation to make it clear that the most important outreach is to the people of Iran, not their oppressors.”

“We don’t want them to feel that we don’t care or they are abandoned, or that we are more interested in doing business with their officials than we are in seeing Iran free,” he said. “He should have condemned what appears to be election fraud more fully.”

But some human rights groups agreed with the president that to side with either Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or his challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, would be detrimental.

“It is better for the U.S. not to comment and make itself part of the equation,” said Hadi Ghademi, a spokesman for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “By supporting one faction versus another, the U.S. would not be helpful at all.”

Mr. Obama said he does not want forceful statements from the U.S. to be used by the Ahmadinejad government as a “political football.” There is strong antipathy inside Iran to the idea of being dictated to by other countries, especially Western powers such as the United States.

It is consistent with Mr. Obama’s stated desire to pursue a more “humble” foreign policy, but also represents the shift under Mr. Obama away from the Bush-era push to promote democracy around the world.

Mr. Obama at one point Tuesday did appear poised to take a strong stand in support of Iranian protesters.

“I stand strongly” he said, as reporters inched forward on their seats, “with the universal principle that people’s voices should be heard and not suppressed.”

A reporter shouted a question about whether he stood with the people of Iran, but Mr. Obama had already turned and left the stage.