Obama alters tone, backs Iranian dissidents on Persian New Year

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President Obama has reversed course on his administration’s policy of limiting criticism of Iran’s human rights abuses, speaking out Sunday in support of imprisoned dissidents seeking democracy in the Islamic republic.

In an annual Persian New Year message, Mr. Obama named several Iranians who had been arrested in a series of crackdowns that have shaken the country since 2009. The comments contrasted sharply with a 2009 presidential message to Iran and its leaders in the annual video message for Nowruz, the Persian New Year holiday.

“For nearly two years, there has been a campaign of intimidation and abuse,” Mr. Obama said in the message, broadcast over the Internet. “Young and old; men and women; rich and poor — the Iranian people have been persecuted. Hundreds of prisoners of conscience are in jail. The innocent have gone missing. Journalists have been silenced. Women tortured. Children sentenced to death.”

He ended the message with a quote from Simin Behbahani, an octogenarian Iranian poet who is banned from leaving her country and widely considered the poet laureate of Iran’s democratic opposition movement.

The 2011 Nowruz message contrasted sharply with the more conciliatory tone of the one Mr. Obama delivered on March 20, 2009. In that message, he said, “On the occasion of your new year, I want you, the people and leaders of Iran, to understand the future that we seek. It’s a future with renewed exchanges among our people, and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce.”

The Obama administration has launched several diplomatic gambits since 2009 aimed at reaching out to the Tehran government, which took power in 1979 by ousting the shah, a longtime U.S. ally, in an Islamic revolution.

Iran has spurned the offers, including a call for closer ties with the United States if Tehran would come into compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The 2009 public Nowruz message was followed by a private letter from Mr. Obama to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, urging reconciliation and diplomacy. The State Department also cut off funding in 2009 for a project based at Yale University to monitor human rights in Iran.

Iran’s pro-democracy Green Revolution was launched after pro-regime militias began attacking demonstrators following contested June 12, 2009, presidential elections. At that time, the Obama administration was slow to publicly back Green Party candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi or his supporters.

The White House is still hoping for successful negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. The last meeting between U.S. and Iranian diplomats on the issue took place in January in Istanbul.

Mohsen Sazegara, an Iranian dissident who helped found Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in 1979 and is now at the George W. Bush Institute at Southern Methodist University, said he is pleased with the change in tone from the White House.

“I think his message for Nowruz was a good one,” he said. “It was quite different than a few years ago, when he sent the letter to Khamenei. I like that he named the names from every part of the opposition.”

Mr. Sazegara added, “I think President Obama has learned to support democracy.”

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the 2011 Nowruz message was the strongest language from Mr. Obama regarding human rights in Iran. “The message was one of engagement with the Iranian people, not their government,” he said.

Mr. Sadjadpour added: “I think the White House appears no longer interested in making conciliatory overtures to a regime that is unwilling or incapable of reciprocating them.”

As president, Mr. Bush also delivered video Nowruz messages to the people of Iran. In 2002, he explicitly supported the student movement that received international attention after 1999 when protests against the reform government of President Mohammad Khatami shut down Tehran University.

Mr. Sadjadpour said the difference between the current president and Mr. Bush is that Mr. Obama is viewed as having tried to win over Tehran through diplomacy before voicing support for the country’s opposition.

“The big difference between Bush and Obama is that there is a widespread perception, both in Iran and internationally, that Obama really made an effort to engage Iran, but the Islamic republic didn’t reciprocate,” he said. “The focus is no longer Washington’s aversion to diplomacy, it’s Iranian intransigence.”

Andrew Apostolou, a senior program manager at Freedom House who works closely with Iranian dissidents, said the shift in Mr. Obama’s tone is significant.

“It is an important change,” he said. “President Obama has moved from seeking to repair relations with the Iranian regime to advocating for political prisoners in Iran.”

Mr. Apostolou also noted that Mr. Obama “explicitly linked the protest movement in Iran in 2009 to the protests sweeping Arab countries in 2011 — which means that the president of the United States is now repeating what Arab democracy activists have said. The message to the Iranian regime is that it is wrong to believe that it can escape the changes elsewhere in the Middle East.”

Mr. Obama, at least publicly, appeared during most of 2009 to be interested in striking a deal with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The White House position on talks with Iran contrasted with the public statements of the democratic opposition that regarded Mr. Ahmadinejad as illegitimate and the beneficiary of a stolen election.

Still, there are signs that behind the scenes that Mr. Obama allowed a nuclear sabotage program launched under Mr. Bush to continue its work. That top-secret program, first reported by the New York Times, was likely the springboard for the Stuxnet computer virus that reports say damaged the computer industrial control systems linked to Iranian nuclear centrifuges by speeding up their rotors, causing them to break down.

A revised intelligence estimate of Iran’s nuclear program — which might be adjusted depending on the success or failure of the Stuxnet virus — is being circulated in secret within the U.S. government.

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