Barack Obama’s call for change rings hollow in Iran
Just over two weeks ago, Mr Obama stood beneath the dome of Cairo University’s Great Hall and gave a speech that stirred hearts throughout the Middle East and won him plaudits across the world.
Promising a "new beginning" in relations between the Islamic world and the West, he proclaimed his "unyielding belief" in a set of universal principles.
These included "the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed, confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice, government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people, the freedom to live as you choose".
Yet although his statements on the events in Tehran grew tougher over the weekend, Mr Obama has given the protesters – who are calling for the enactment of his Cairo principles – the cold shoulder. Change in Iran, it appears, is the last thing he wants.
Mr Obama stunned supporters of a potential nascent Green Revolution – perhaps a successor to the "colour revolutions" in Ukraine, Georgia and Burma and Lebanon’s "Cedar revolution" – by stating that one Iranian leader was pretty much the same as the next.
"It is important to understand that although there is amazing ferment taking place in Iran, that the difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised," Mr Obama said loftily last week, minutes after his "Dirty Harry" moment in which he dispatched a fly to its maker with the words: "I got the sucker."
Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a Mousavi spokesman, wondered bitterly whether Mr Obama liked it when it was said he was just the same as his predecessor, adding: "Ahmadinejad is the Bush of Iran. And Mousavi is the Obama of Iran."
Careful to avoid what he said could be seen in Iran as "meddling" or "moralising", Mr Obama has tried to maintain a restrained, neutral stance, brushing aside the advice of Vice President Joe Biden, who in off-the-record comments has been forcefully advocating a full-throated endorsement of the protesters.
Instead, Mr Obama has played the foreign policy realist – notwithstanding his idealistic rhetoric in Cairo.
His Norwuz message in March broke with tradition by appealing to the "leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran" as well as the people. This month, by visiting Saudi Arabia and choosing to speak in Egypt sent a message that he was ready to deal with Arab autocrats and turn a blind eye to human rights abuses.
This is partly a reaction to President George W. Bush’s policy championing of freedom and democracy in the Middle East – not to mention "regime change" – which became discredited by Iraq. But in jettisoning everything that seems tainted by his predecessor, Mr Obama is in danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water.
The new president is an admirer of such Realpolitik figures as Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft and even President George H W Bush. In emulating them, he is essentially now saying that he wants a grand bargain on Iran’s nuclear programme and stability in Iran, rather than revolutionary upheaval, suits America’s interests.
Following the surprise victory in the Lebanese elections by a moderate, pro-Western coalition over its Hizbollah-led opponents just three days after the Cairo speech, some – encouraged by the White House – proclaimed an "Obama effect" sweeping the Middle East.
But such talk has been muted in recent days. Michael Rubin, a former Bush administration official in Iraq and scholar at the hawkish American Enterprise Institute, said: "There’s an unfortunate tendency in Washington to assume that the failure of diplomacy is more to do with one’s predecessor than one’s adversary.
"And at the same time, there’s a tendency to try to take credit while ignoring the fact that the Middle East is a lot more complicated and it doesn’t just respond to American rhetoric."
On the Right, there have been heated demands that Mr Obama champion the protesters and declare the election a fraud.
Such an approach would certainly have its perils. White House advisers believe that American encouragement of the protesters could be used as an excuse for brutal repression by the Iranian regime, perhaps triggering bloodshed on the scale of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.
But in his early statements, Mr Obama clearly assumed that the election was over and that he would be dealing with Mr Ahmadinejad, thereby implicitly aligning himself with the theocratic Iranian regime.
This has led to deep discomfort on the Left. Steve Clemons, a self-described "progressive realist" and senior fellow at the New America Foundation think tank, said that Mr Obama’s stance as it developed last week was "somewhat tragic" as well as flawed.
"These speeches he’s been giving have been designed to reach deep down into these societies, past their governments to the publics. Now, he’s stopped doing that... it showed that the Obama mystique of reaching out to these citizens around the world has reached its limit."
Perhaps the biggest irony is that there might be an Obama effect but that Mr Obama himself is stifling it.
"To a certain degree," said Mr Clemons, "he’s undermining his own mystique and frankly his own effect, if in fact it does exist, with this premature, cynical realism."
© The Telegraph Group