Political leaders in Europe have responded more critically than U.S. politicians to the continually evolving situation in Iran. However, officials on both continents have struggled to balance necessary outrage with an increasing awareness that foreign condemnation could undermine support for the burgeoning opposition movement.

This is particularly the case for the United States and Britain, which share an unfortunate history of intervention (though at different times and to varying degrees) that still carries potent political resonance among many Iranians.

In the ten days since record numbers of Iranians flocked to the polls in an election widely interpreted as a referendum on President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s crude economic populism and incendiary foreign policy, outrage over likely vote-rigging drove millions into the streets of Tehran and led to violent clashes with police and militias that have reportedly claimed at least 19 lives and prompted hundreds of arrests. What began as mass demonstrations against manipulated electoral results have evolved into broad-based, angry denunciations of the regime to a degree unprecedented since the last days of the Shah and birth of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who during his campaign pledged to negotiate unconditionally with Iran, faces a particularly fraught series of decisions as his previous policy of engagement confronts violent repression in the streets of Tehran. Kim Ghattas of BBC news describes Obama’s threefold challenge:

“The challenge has been threefold:

  • keeping faith with the hundreds of thousands of Iranians who have taken to the streets without undermining their credibility in a country where the US is routinely called the “great Satan”
  • condemning the violence used to quell the protesters without cutting off all chances of talks with Iran should the current leadership remain in power
  • maintaining a cautious tone in referring to the protesters without ending up on the wrong side of history should the opposition emerge on top at the end of the struggle”

As Ghattas notes in her article, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator John Kerry (D-MA), recently published an Op-Ed in The New York Times that lauded Obama’s cautious approach:

“Returning to harsh criticism now would only erase this progress, empower hard-liners in Iran who want to see negotiations fail and undercut those who have risen up in support of a better relationship.”

In contrast to Obama’s measured tones, European leaders have forcefully condemned the violence in Iran, openly questioned the legitimacy of the election, and called for a full recount of the disputed results.

Last Friday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown stepped up his criticism of the Iranian regime after remarks by Iran’s President and Prime Minister that British foreign agents were responsible for fomenting some of the protests. In addition, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during a speech in Tehran, referred to the United Kingdom as the most “treacherous of Iran’s enemies” and “the most evil” of foreign powers, again revealing the government’s strategy of manipulating the country’s history of foreign intervention to justify present repression.

James Blitz of the Financial Times notes the changing stance of the British government and the hardening of views toward Iran on the European continent:

Yet Mr Brown on Friday toughened the UK’s stance, saying at an EU summit in Brussels: “It is for Iran now to show the world that the elections have been fair … that the repression and the brutality that we have seen in these last few days is not something that is going to be repeated.”

He added: “I believe that it is right for us to speak out for rights, to speak out against repression, to speak out in condemnation of violence, to speak out for a free media that is prevented from doing its job, and we will continue to do it.”

Mr Brown’s comments brought him closer to the position of his French and German counterparts who have this week been more forthright than Mr Obama in condemning the demonstrations.

Nicolas Sarkozy, French president, who called the result a “fraud”, said on Friday: “We don’t want to give the impression that foreigners … are getting involved in the elections in Iran … but when you have to condemn, you condemn.”

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, on Friday criticised the speech by Mr Khamenei, in which he attacked foreign powers for questioning the election results. She said his comments were “disappointing”.

Meanwhile, as reported by Deutsche-Welle, Italy joined its European neighbors in calling for a recount of the disputed election, and its Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini, invited his Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, to attend a Group of Eight meeting this Thursday to discuss the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Given that Iran had until the end of the day on Monday to accept the invitation, it is doubtful Mottaki or any Iranian representatives will attend – and more broadly what such attendance could possibly achieve.

As violent confrontations between protesters and police and militiamen continue unabated, pressure will obviously intensify on political leaders in Europe and the U.S to determine what to do next. For President Obama, the challenge will be judging when the possibility of future engagement and the perils of intervention can no longer outweigh the degregadation in moral authority that accompanies passively watching brave Iranian men and women, young and old, being beaten and even killed on the streets of Tehran.

For European leaders, their challenge will be supporting their eloquent outrage with concrete action. As Columbia Professor and Iran analyst Gary Sick comments in an article in The Financial Times, the U.S. has an unfortunate if unintended history (Iraq, 1991; Hungary, 1956) of issuing gallant appeals on behalf of rising revolutionary movements only to watch them be brutally crushed by the regime in power. Indeed, expressing solidarity is rarely sufficient.

Brendan Boundy is an intern with the New Atlanticist.  He is pursuing a master’s degree from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.