Egypt’s revolution appears to have stiffened the spine of the Barack Obama administration when it comes to Iran.
In the wake of the mass protests that ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Washington has begun to "tweet" in Farsi as well as Arabic. President Obama – and to an even greater extent, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – have toughened their language against the Iranian government. Meanwhile, the troubled Persian service of the Voice of America has hired a U.S. Foreign Service officer to direct broadcasting to Iran.
Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that the administration was more inhibited when protests broke out following Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential elections because "Obama still held out hope of reaching a nuclear agreement with Iran. Today I think the White House has come to the conclusion that they can’t reach a modus vivendi with a regime that seemingly needs them as an adversary."
Two rounds of nuclear talks between Iran, the United States and the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany ended last month without progress or even a date for further discussions. Then popular protests erupted in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, drawing attention from Iran’s nuclear programme and refocusing it on democracy and human rights.
Officially, U.S. policy toward Iran is not regime change but a change in regime policies. However, there has been a clear shift in tone in recent days.
In a series of interviews on Monday – as Iranian protesters returned to the streets of major Iranian cities en masse for the first time in more than a year – Clinton called the Iranian government "hypocritical" for praising the Arab revolts while crushing its own.
"Contrast what happened in Egypt with what is going on today in Iran where, once again, the Iranian government is lashing out, using violence against people who are expressing the same desires as we heard from Egypt," she told Al Jazeera.
"I find it very ironic that Iran is trying to give lessons in democracy to anybody," she said to Al Hurra, a U.S. government-backed Arabic satellite channel. "Talk about a revolution that was hijacked; Iran is Exhibit A. What Iran is doing to its people, even as we speak, where there are protestors trying to have their voices heard in Iran who are being brutally suppressed by the Iranian security forces, I don’t think anyone in the Middle East – or frankly, anyone in the world – would look to Iran as an example for them."
On Tuesday, in a speech on Internet freedom, Clinton called Iran "awful" with a government "that routinely violates the rights of its people". She announced that the State Department would spend an additional 25 million dollars this year on projects to increase access to the Internet in Iran and elsewhere on top of 30 million dollars set aside for Internet freedom last year.
The capping touch was provided by President Obama who told a news conference Tuesday: "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 in Iran."
As Obama spoke, Iranian state media, which initially welcomed the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, had also changed its tone as it became apparent that the uprisings were led not by Islamic activists but by a broad spectrum of groups – and that the protests were boomeranging back to Iran.
The rightist newspaper Kayhan editorialised on Monday that the Egyptian army, which has assumed control over Egypt during the transition to elections, "implemented a precise scenario whose playwright is America… The army has been instructed to hijack the popular revolution and obstruct sovereignty, freedom and Islamism."
The Obama administration has struggled to find ways to communicate support for Iranian protesters without giving the Iranian government ammunition to blame unrest on outside interference. Broadcasts by the Persian News Network (PNN) – the Farsi service of the Voice of America – are a component of the strategy even though VOA’s mandate is to present news without political bias.
On Monday, Ramin Asgard, an Iranian-American Foreign Service officer whose last posting was as a political adviser to Central Command – took the helm of the PNN. VOA executives said it was the first time since the waning days of the Cold War that a non-journalist has assumed such an important position in U.S. government-funded broadcasting.
VOA management has had difficulty finding the right person to run the sprawling service, which has one hit show – a "Daily Show" clone called "Static" or "Parazit" in Farsi – but has been riven by disputes among its staff over what vision of Iran’s political future to promote. Some members of Congress as well as some Iranian expatriates have complained that PNN is too critical of U.S. policy and too accommodating to Tehran.
Asgard, who also served as head of an Iran watch office in Dubai, did not seek the position but was offered it after several others turned VOA down or were deemed unsuitable, according to a source with knowledge of the process.
On the job only three days, he has already been the target of an attack on a blog run by the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute. Trey Hicks, a researcher at the Hudson Institute, accused Asgard of undermining U.S. policy toward Iran by suggesting U.S. taxpayer support for the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), a group that has in the past advocated engagement with Iran but has also taken a tough stance on human rights abuses. Hicks also questioned Asgard’s command of Farsi.
Asgard did not respond to requests to reply to the allegations.
Trita Parsi, head of NIAC, said Asgard had once suggested that the grassroots group help him recruit interns for the Dubai office but Parsi said he was not in a position to help and no funds were offered. While in Dubai, Asgard did promote scientific and cultural exchanges with Iran, which was – and remains – the policy of the U.S. government.
Sadjadpour said Asgard was chosen in part to insulate VOA from Congressional complaints that the service was not sufficiently taking account of U.S. government views.
"The heads of VOA think they need to protect themselves against Congress and he [Asgard] checked some of the right boxes," Sadjadpour said.