Washington Matters


Obama's Cautious Gamble on Iran


President Obama is playing his diplomatic cards on Iran pretty much the way a superpower president needs to. Although marches in the streets continue despite the violent police response, the situation demands a careful and studied approach. As president, Obama doesn't have the luxury of venting about Iran's clerics and the bloody crackdown. Obama doesn't want to spark a conflagration or give Iran's leaders any excuses to get tougher. The bad news for Obama is that the soft public stance on Iran will fuel criticism that he is not tough enough for the world stage.

Obama continues to walk a quiet diplomatic line, sending orchestrated signals and using State Department.-approved language to register deep concern while keeping calm, even as many Republicans, and even some Democrats, itch for something tougher.

I bet President George W. Bush would have responded much the same way as Obama, supporting courageous democratic reformers but not injecting the U.S. in Iran's internal affairs or injecting rhetoric that could harm reformers' efforts and possibly their lives.

Bush acted with similar caution, in fact, when North Korea tested a nuclear device underground in 2006. His spokesman called it "unacceptable" and "provocative" without going much farther.

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Congress is a different story. Nearly 50 pieces of legislation demanding tougher measures against Iran have been introduced in the last few days. It's the legislative practice du jour, and it requires little more than a congressman, a printer and bill number to be assigned.

There are bills to limit Export-Import Bank funding to firms dealing with Iran's energy sector. Legislation to restrict U.S. trade with foreign companies selling Iran refined gasoline, of which it has little. Another bill would authorize local and state governments to divest from companies doing work with Iran's energy sector. Another would provide political refugee assistance to protest leaders.

But none of them will be signed into law, not in the short term anyhow. The president has all the authority over foreign policy; his chief of staff could stop such bills with a call to the Senate Democratic leadership.

The most the White House has done so far it to rescind invitations to Iranian diplomats to attend July 4 events at embassies -- a small slap on the wrist (none of the invitations had been accepted, anyway, reportedly).

There'll have to be more response than that at some point, especially if the Iranian election results stand, as it appears they will.

Obama is right in the short term to keep calm with Iran. If the democratic movement is squashed, however, he'll carry the criticism for years -- that he somehow let a huge opportunity get away. It could be that Obama is banking on a young, tech-savvy and energetic movement in Iran to keep the heat on and outlast the regime. Might be a smart call. It's a regime that is clearly bruised, perhaps badly, but one that is gripping power aggressively for now.




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