ON NOVEMBER 4, protesters gathered outside the gates of the US embassy in Tehran to mark the 30th anniversary of the hostage-taking. There were the usual government-backed "Death to America" protests--celebrating the then-young revolutionaries and their enduring fanaticism.
But there were other protests, too. Nearly six months after the fixed Iranian election brought hundreds of thousands of green-clad Iranian democrats to the streets, a few thousand brave souls gathered to challenge the corrupt Iranian regime. The crowd was smaller than in May, but their hopes were no less audacious. They had organised secretly to stage a protest to tell anyone who would listen that their democratic aspirations had not been snuffed out and that, despite the indifference of world leaders and the violence of the mullahs, they would persevere.
"Death to the Dictator," they shouted in Farsi, words that could get them killed. And in what the Associated Press described as "a new and startling appeal", the protesters spoke directly to the US President: "Obama, Obama," they chanted. "You are either with them or with us."
At least four foreign journalists were detained during the protests, and members of government-backed militias appeared in riot gear beating protesters with heavy clubs and arresting others.
Back at the State Department, spokesman Ian Kelly prepared to open his daily briefing with an unusually harsh condemnation. The United States "deplores" the "unprecedented" actions of an unelected leadership that "have undermined any opportunity for progress toward reengagement and constructive dialogue".
Fiji the target
These would have been the strongest words issued by the Obama administration about the Iranian protests if they had been about the Iranian regime. But they were actually about Fiji. Kelly said absolutely nothing about Iran.
What he was deploring was a decision by "Fiji's de facto government to expel New Zealand's acting head of mission as well as Australia's high commissioner." That last act, according to Kelly, was "unprecedented in that Australia now holds the chairmanship of the Pacific Islands Forum," so "the United States calls for the restoration of Fiji's independent judiciary and the rights to free speech and assembly that are essential to the country's return to democracy."
The burst of toughness left the reporters in the room perplexed.
REPORTER: Exactly what's the U.S. connection there? The government of Fiji expels diplomats from Australia and New Zealand, and you care because--It's encouraging that the Obama administration can get tough with someone--or someone other than Israel, Wall Street CEOs, and Dick Cheney--even if it's with a nation that boasts the population of Rhode Island and a GDP of $3.5 billion, less than Americans spend annually on cat food. But the Obama administration had no substantive response to the Tehran violence or the silenced protesters' message.
KELLY: We care because we care about the restoration of democracy in Fiji. Last April, they--the president abolished the constitution--
KELLY: and dismissed all judges and constitutional appointees and imposed emergency rule.
REPORTER: Yeah, that happened. But the operative word being there last when? Operative words? Last--
REPORTER: April, okay. And so--
KELLY: I mean, we have an interest in democracy returning to Fiji.
REPORTER: Well, I understand. But what does the expulsion of the diplomats from Australia and New Zealand have to do with the restoration of democracy?
KELLY: It was--we consider it be an unjust act to expel them out of the country.
Earlier in the week both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had expressed hope that the Iranian regime would reverse three decades of antagonism and rejoin the community of civilized nations. Clinton, speaking to reporters in Morocco, particularly wished that Iran would accept an offer from the IAEA to ship some of its low-enriched uranium to Russia to show that Iran "does wish to cooperate with the international community and fulfill their international responsibilities".
The White House then sent out a statement commemorating the 30th anniversary of the takeover. It began, delicately, in the passive voice. "Thirty years ago today, the American embassy in Tehran was seized." (It was apparently too provocative to say by whom.)
The 444 days that began on November 4, 1979, deeply affected the lives of courageous Americans who were unjustly held hostage, and we owe these Americans and their families our gratitude for their extraordinary service and sacrifice. This event helped set the United States and Iran on a path of sustained suspicion, mistrust, and confrontation. I have made it clear that the United States of America wants to move beyond this past, and seeks a relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran based upon mutual interests and mutual respect.
There are other reasons for the suspicion, mistrust, and confrontation, of course. Iran killed hundreds of US Marines in a terrorist attack in Beirut in 1983. Iran sponsored and trained the terrorists who killed 19 American soldiers at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996. Iran harbored senior al Qaeda leaders in the months after September 11, 2001. It is training, arming, and funding the terrorists fighting US soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. And last week Iran was caught red-handed delivering weapons--hundreds of tons of arms--to terrorists.
And there are brand new reasons for suspicion, mistrust, and confrontation. In late September, the world learned that Iran had constructed a secret uranium enrichment facility at Qom. In announcing the breach, Obama noted: "This is not the first time that Iran has concealed information about its nuclear program." Yet he went on to affirm his commitment "to serious, meaningful engagement with Iran to address the nuclear issue" through the international community.
Then, late Thursday came a bombshell report in the Guardian: The International Atomic Energy Agency has evidence that the Iranian regime had been working on an advanced design for a nuclear warhead. If perfected, the "two-point implosion" device would allow the Iranians to build smaller bombs with higher yields, which are easier to load and deliver by missile. If Iran's nuclear program were peaceful, as the Iranian government has repeatedly proclaimed (and virtually no one believes), there would be no reason for this kind of work.
The US intelligence community has had this information for weeks, according to several officials. The Senate Select Intelligence Committee was briefed on October 22 and the House Permanent Select Intelligence Committee on October 29. The new information strongly suggests that Iran did not suspend its entire nuclear weapons program in 2003 as the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran claims.
End to mistrust
So on two separate occasions in the past two months, Obama publicly called for an end to the "mistrust" between Iran and the United States even as he was privately being presented with fresh intelligence showing that Iran has been lying about its nuclear weapons program and its intentions.
Obama's passivity is beginning to frustrate even members of his own party. Last week, the Senate Banking Committee unanimously passed a measure that would give the president more authority to impose harsh sanctions on Iran's importing of gasoline and other refined petroleum products. "It is clear that an overwhelming bipartisan majority in both houses of Congress now supports the imposition of tough new sanctions on the government of Iran," said Senators Evan Bayh, Joe Lieberman, and Jon Kyl in a joint statement. The legislation has 76 cosponsors in the Senate, including 38 Democrats. But the White House has not endorsed the measure.
The French are growing impatient, too. A month ago, French president Nicolas Sarkozy chastised Obama for his dithering on Iran. Then last week, in an interview with the New York Times, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner accused the Obama administration of avoiding the hard decisions on Iran. "Our American friends ask us to wait until the end of the year," he said. "It's not us." Kouchner told the Times that the White House wants to give Iran an opportunity for more negotiations. "We're waiting for talks, but where are the talks?"
There is only so much toughness to go around. And the Obama administration prefers to focus on the growing global threat from Frank Bainimarama, Fijian strongman.
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard. This article has been republished from the Vol 15, Issue 9, edition on November 16.