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.
However, Mr. Obama’s sudden decision to toughen his language on Tehran had the effect of making the State Department look out of sync with the White House.
Until about an hour before the presidential news conference, the State Department continued to follow a more cautious public line, using words like “deeply concerned” about the situation in Iran, but refusing to “condemn” the crackdown. Then came Mr. Obama’s surprise.
“The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings and imprisonments of the last few days,” he said. “I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost.”
The decision on Iran was very personal, officials said. Mr. Obama knew his senior aides’ views, but it was up to him to “pull the trigger.”
“We have so few tools when we deal with Iran, and we don’t fully understand what’s going on, so all we’ve got is what the president says,” the first administration official said. “There isn’t a huge process behind it.”
In general, the officials said, Mr. Obama has relied on the government bureaucracy to formulate language on foreign affairs.
For example, before Mr. Obama’s meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday, everything he said was a “result of a long process involving meetings and briefing papers,” the official said. Even with North Korea, another country that has no diplomatic relations with the U.S., “we have a formalized mechanism in the six-party [nuclear] talks and more moving pieces.”
Analysts said the Iran episode shows Mr. Obama’s nuanced thinking and in-depth analysis of foreign policy, although some warned that he risks being too cautious and appearing indecisive.
“The demonstrators in Iran have revealed the extreme caution of Obama’s approach to the world, as if he is afraid of making a mistake, and his dislike of disruptions to an agenda he has already laid out,” Reginald Dale, director of the Transatlantic Media Network at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in reference to the president’s offer of engagement, which so far has been spurned by Tehran.
Kim R. Holmes, vice president of the Heritage Foundation, who was assistant secretary of state for international organizations in the George W. Bush administration, said: “The caution that we should not meddle was shown to be pointless after the Iranian leadership blamed the protests on America and Britain anyway.”
Michael J. Green, former senior director for East Asian affairs on the National Security Council in the Bush White House, said Mr. Obama may be trying the learn from his predecessor’s mistakes.
Mr. Bush tended to make decisions during meetings with his national security team, but the problem was that his aides “interpreted his directions differently,” especially during his first term, Mr. Green said.
At the time, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s aides often said that he “felt good” about the outcome of a White House meeting, because Mr. Bush had taken his advice. Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld felt the same way, except that their advice was usually very different.
“It seems that Obama is trying to avoid such confusion by laying out specifically what he wants,” Mr. Green said.
As involved as Mrs. Clinton may have been in the process leading up to Mr. Obama’s decision on Iran, “the secretary of state usually doesn’t have the last say, because he or she is not there with the president all the time,” he said. “With all the modern technology, location still means power.”
• Nicholas Kralev can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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