Obama and the Iranian protesters — mutuality of interests but not of spirit

Iranian protesters were in the streets of Tehran and several other cities this weekend. That they were protesting at all is significant. There had been little such acitivity during the fall.
But what’s more significant is the nature of the latest round of protests. According to the Washington Post, the demonstrators, who numbered in the tens of thousands, “fought back with unusual force, kicking and punching police officers and torching government builidings.” This stands in contrast to the usual, and understandable, approach in which demonstrators fall back and disperse when security forces arrive.
About a dozen protesters have been killed, according to reports. One of them is the nephew of Mir Hossein Mousavi, the unsuccessful presidential candidate in this summer’s election.
The Iranian authorities admitted that there were five deaths in Tehran, but denied responsibility, claiming that the police had not used their weapons. This account is contradicted by many eyewitnesses. It is likely to make the government seem not only dishonest, but foolish. It also suggests a lack of confidence. In the past, elements within the regime have boasted about their willingness to act ruthlessly.
Whenever the stakes are raised like this as the result of increased boldness by those attempting a revolt, the grip of a dictatorship becomes more tenuous. Fear is what keeps the Iranian regime in power, and right now the regime seems to command less fear than in the past.
But while the status of the regime diminishes in Iran, it holds steady with the Obama administration. The best the White House could do this weekend was to issue a statement, attributed to National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer, condemning the “unjust oppression” of the iranian protesters. But a statement by a functionary is probably worse than no statement at all because, by highlighting the president’s detachment, it sends a positive signal to the regime and a negative one to the protesters.
Obama needs to speak. And he needs to say that the U.S. is abandoning its policy of “engagement” — what has it gotten us? — in favor of tough sanctions. In addition, he needs to declare in clear terms his support for the aims of the dissidents, not just his unhappiness with the methods the regime is using to beat them back.
As Jonathan Tobin puts it, “with so many willing to risk death to oppose the Islamist tyranny, now is the time for Barack Obama to find both his courage and his voice.” After all, the Iranian demonstrators are not the only ones with something to gain if the Iranian tyrants fall.
UPDATE: I think I now understand why the regime claimed the police did not use their weapons. As Michael Totten explains, the killing of demonstrators occurred on the Shiite holy day of Ashura. This is the day when the forces of the Umayyad caliph Yazid killed Hussein, son of Ali and grandson of the Prophet Mohammad. Thus, according to Totten, killing Muslims on Ashura is like crucifying Christians on Christmas.
This, of course, only compounds the difficulty the regime is in.

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