It took a while for President Obama to speak out forcefully on Iran, but it may have been worth the wait. At a noon-hour press conference Tuesday, the president pronounced himself "appalled and outraged" by the violence and repression the Iranian government has directed at its own people – people who have peacefully protested what is widely believed to be a stolen election.
"I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost," Obama said in his most pointed comments yet about the crisis that has shaken Iran and focused worldwide attention on its repressive regime.
"I have made it clear that the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is not at all interfering in Iran's affairs," the president added, "but we must also bear witness to the courage and dignity of the Iranian people, and to a remarkable opening within Iranian society."
Obama paid tribute to the women of Iran, pointing to the death of Neda Agha Soltan, a bystander who stepped out of her car because it was stuck in traffic and was shot in the chest, presumably by government-backed militiamen. Video of the 26-year-old woman's bloody death in the street has gone around the world on the Internet – including into the White House.
"We have seen courageous women stand up to brutality and threats, and we have experienced the searing image of a woman bleeding to death on the streets," the president said in his statement. "While this loss is raw and painful, we also know this: those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history." Asked during the last question of his hourlong newser whether he had seen the video of Neda Agha Soltan's death himself, the president affirmed that he had.
"It's heartbreaking," he said quietly, pausing for a second. "It's heartbreaking. And anybody who sees it knows that there is something fundamentally unjust about that."
The president, who said during his 2008 campaign that he'd be willing to meet with Iranian leaders, has been under building pressure this month to draw some kind of line over that regime's behavior. He has refrained from doing so, he said plainly Tuesday, in hopes of keeping the United States from being a dominant player in the story line. Obama has stuck to this script, even though, as he acknowledged, Iranian officials are blaming him anyway.
His refusal to be baited strikes some experts as perfect pitch, while others, both in Washington and Tehran, have wanted him to be more forceful. Obama acknowledged both sides of the argument Tuesday, opening the press conference by reading a carefully calibrated written statement that expressed strong disapproval of Iran's government while continuing to emphasize that he will not make the kind of threats that turn the behavior of the United States into the issue.
"This tired strategy of using old tensions to scapegoat other countries won't work anymore in Iran," he said. "This is not about the United States and the West; this is about the people of Iran and the future that they -- and only they -- will choose."
Later, in response to a question, Obama pointed to accusations by Iranian officials that the CIA was behind the protests as well as cynical mistranslations of his own words, which purportedly quote Obama as encouraging people to riot. Such claims are "patently false and absurd," he said, "(and) are an obvious attempt to distract people from what is truly taking place within Iran's borders."
Obama parried without really answering a question about whether he had been motivated to speak more pointedly about Iran by criticism from Capitol Hill, most especially from John McCain. And he directly rebuffed efforts from at least two journalists to get him to say what, if any, actions his administration might take against Iran. He reminded his audience Tuesday of his two core principles when it came to negotiating with Iran: making sure the current regime doesn't obtain nuclear weapons and ensuring that it ceases to sponsor terrorism around the world.
The regime has given no indication that it has any intention of backing down in either area, and has now added a third grievance: rigging its own elections and shooting down unarmed civilians in the street who dare protest – or who just happen to be where demonstrations are taking place.
The president said: "There is a path available to Iran (in which) their traditions, culture, their faith is respected...but operates according to norms and international rules that are universal."