It is clear that the Obama administration’s response to the current crackdown in Iran is more decisive and clear than it was last year, during the last round of protests and violence in Iran. Then, the administration tried to walk a fine line on two fronts.
One, it did not want to alienate the government in Tehran, for fear of jeopardizing nuclear talks, nor did it want to condone the violence committed by government-sponsored militias. And two, the Obama team did not want to interject itself too much on the behalf of the protesters, because of concerns that the Green Movement would be perceived by Iranians as American-backed, thereby spoiling the push toward more openness and freedom. Yet at the same time, officials certainly hoped that the Greens would succeed and push the theocratic/military dictatorship out of office. In the end, these strains of thought led to a very slow and muddy public position on events in Iran, and Obama was criticized on all sides of the left-right political spectrum in America and by foreign groups and organizations–all of whom thought that Obama had let the nascent reform movement down.
Washington is taking a different approach this year. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, among others, have already issued critical statements on Iran. And there has been virtually little gap in time between events on the ground in Iran and public declarations in Washington. Indeed, on Tuesday, Obama declared, "I find it ironic that you've got the Iranian regime pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt, when in fact they have acted in direct contrast to what happened in Egypt by gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully....My hope and expectation is that we are going to continue to see the people of Iran have the courage to be able to express their yearning for greater freedom and a more representative government."
A part of this shift in approach by the U.S., I am sure, is due to the current push for reform throughout almost the entire Middle East, a push that looks inevitably successful–whether it occurs in the near future or at a later time. Obama himself has said on a number occasions in the last week that he believed it was important the U.S. positioned itself on the right side of history by supporting democratic reformers. After all, if Obama believes that "the people" are going to run governments in the region, then it makes perfect sense to build meaningful political, economic, and diplomatic bridges to them and to dump support for the dictators.
Another key factor is the state of nuclear talks with Iran. In 2009 and 2010, the Obama administration desired to give the talks a chance to work, if for no other reason than show that Tehran was not a sincere bargaining partner. By February 2011, after months and months of scant Iran-U.S. discussions, it is evident that the talks are dead and there are few expectations that Iran is willing to negotiate with the West’s demands anytime soon (verifiable inspections, no weaponization, enrichment not to exceed specific levels, no transfer of nuclear technology to proxy groups, etc.). In this policy vacuum, the Obama team is somewhat freed to speak their minds on behalf of the Green Movement (which by 2011 is really an umbrella term for various groups opposed to the Iranian government). Put simply, they do not have to worry so much about how their words and actions might jeopardize the pace and substance of delicate negotiations.
Surely, Obama and his team will have to calibrate carefully the words they use in public to describe, assess, and criticize events in Iran. It is highly probable the politico-clerical establishment will try to use them to buttress support for the government and thwart indefinitely the progress and momentum of the Greens. In the meantime, it is good that the U.S. has begun to implement a morally sound, pro-active, and principled stance toward the courageous reformers struggling in Iran.