Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Fifth day of protests in Iran; Mousavi calls for rally on Thursday; regime accuses US of "interference" despite Obama's "no meddling" stance

The protest movement in Iran showed no signs of slacking off Wednesday as tens of thousands demonstrated again in Tehran.

Opposition leader Mir Hussein Mousavi summoned his supporters to rally again on Thursday to mourn the deaths of at least seven people killed by government forces -- in clear defiance of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and in the face of reports of an accelerating crackdown.

Despite President Obama's low-key statements in which he has expressed no opinion on the legitimacy of the disputed Iranian election and said that the U.S. will not "meddle" in Iranian affairs, the regime complained of American interference.

In a possible sign of a widening split within Iran's elite, the country's senior cleric, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montezeri, a long-time rival to Khamenei, blasted the reported election outcome, saying, "No one in their right mind can believe" the official results from Friday's contest. He accused the regime of handling Mousavi's charges of fraud and the massive protests of his backers "in the worst way possible." In an obvious appeal to the Army, he added"

"A government not respecting people's vote has no religious or political legitimacy," he declared in comments on his official Web site. "I ask the police and army personals (personnel) not to 'sell their religion,' and beware that receiving orders will not excuse them before God."

Obama's "no meddling" approach may seem "realistic," but it won't stop the regime from accusing the "Great Satan" of stirring up the protests if Khamenei and Ahmadinejad decide to shut down the media, roll out the tanks, and crush the opposition. No one is suggesting that Obama invade Iran or try to organize a coup -- just to speak out plainly and clearly to say that the United States and the American people support democracy. It's not "realism" to pretend that this upheaval makes no difference and the U.S. will have to negotiate with the regime over nuclear development regardless of what happens. In fact, the outpouring against the regime has already undermined its ongoing legitimacy and especially that of Ahmadinejad. Even if it survives with few concessions, the regime will be in a weaker position diplomatically. That's what "tough diplomacy" (which Obama says he wants to practice) is all about -- strengthening your own position and undermining the other guy's.

What's more, the opposition protests clearly gain legitimacy and momentum from international support. Why else do Iran's dissenters work so hard and risk so much to get the word of what they are doing and what is happening out to the world?

Obama is right to be cautious. This is a big deal, and there is little to be gained by shooting off half cocked. But caution does not mean inaction. The world is watching Iran -- but it's also watching Obama.

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