The post-election drama in Iran continues, with the Guardian Council announcement that it would recount ballots from disputed boxes in the wake of mass demonstrations that have left at least seven people dead.  The Obama administration has remained quite cautious, while European leaders have been more direct in their condemnations.

Mark Tran reports for The Guardian:

European leaders today parted company with a cautious White House in their response to events in Iran, with France and Italy speaking out against the brutal treatment of demonstrators protesting at the presidential election result.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, described the situation in Iran as “extremely alarming” and denounced as “totally disproportionate” the crackdown on demonstrators, which has left eight people dead.  Sarkozy, who was in Gabon for the funeral of President Omar Bongo, said: “The ruling power claims to have won the elections … If that were true, we must ask why they find it necessary to imprison their opponents and repress them with such violence.”

The Italian foreign minister, Franco Frattini, said the violence in the street and the deaths of protesters were “unacceptable”.

Earlier, the Iranian foreign ministery summoned a senior Czech diplomat, representing the EU, to protest against “interventionist and insulting” EU statements about Iran’s election.  “The Islamic Republic of Iran condemns the interventionist and insulting opinions voiced by some western countries, including recent statements [by EU foreign ministers] as well as the [EU] rotating presidency … in connection with Iran’s presidential election,” the Iranian foreign ministry said in a statement.

FT’s Tony Barber reports on the aformentioned EU statement.

Reacting to the disputed re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iran’s president, the EU foreign ministers expressed “serious concern about the violence on the streets and the use of force against peaceful demonstrators.   “It is essential that the aspirations of the Iranian people are achieved through peaceful means and that freedom of expression is respected.”

The foreign ministers also urged Iran to address the world’s concerns about its nuclear programme, suspected by western countries and Israel of concealing an intention to develop nuclear weapons.

The EU is keen to keep open channels of communication with Iran, but is concerned that the post-election political unrest may complicate efforts to engage the Iranians in meaningful talks on the nuclear issue.  “Our serious concern was about the implications of recent events for the engagement the international community seeks from the government of Iran,” said David Miliband, the UK’s foreign secretary.  “We continue to await an Iranian answer to the very generous proposals that were made by the international community with respect to the Iranian nuclear programme. It’s very important that that proposal is answered by an Iranian willingness to sit down and negotiate,” Mr Miliband told reporters.

Deutsche Welle reports that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been quite tough as well.

“The German government is very concerned about the current situation,” Merkel said Monday in Berlin. She strongly criticized the “wave of arrests” during the demonstrations and the fact that foreign media were being hampered from reporting on the developments.  Allegations of election fraud called for a “transparent investigation,” she said.

Similarly, UPI notes, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown stated, “There must be no violence in response to peaceful protests.”

Even though European leaders have been quite restrained, the Obama administration has nonetheless been extremely reticent by comparison.   Jonathan Beale describes the evolution of the administration’s message for BBC:

The first official US reaction had come on Saturday afternoon with a rather anodyne White House statement: “Like the rest of the world, we were impressed by the vigorous debate and enthusiasm that the election generated. We continue to monitor the entire situation closely, including reports of irregularities.”

By Sunday morning, Vice-President Joe Biden was a bit more forceful, stating on national television that there appeared to be “some real doubt” about the results. His remarks came long after Tehran had erupted with protests and bitter recriminations, however. On Monday afternoon, the state department spokesman went a little further saying that the administration was “deeply troubled” by “reports” of violence and voting irregularities.

By yesterday afternoon, Obama himself made a statement — in response to questioning from reporters — and allowed as to how he was “deeply troubled” and asked Iran’s leaders to respect “universal values.”

Today, in response to yet more questioning, he went a bit further.

“It’s not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling — the U.S. president meddling in Iranian elections,” he said. “What I will repeat and what I said yesterday is that when I see violence directed at peaceful protesters, when I see peaceful dissent being suppressed, wherever that takes place, it is of concern to me and it is of concern to the American people.”

The American Conservative‘s Daniel Larison argues that Obama is getting it exactly right:

The President of the United States is not and must not be seen as a partisan in the elections of other nations. No matter the party and no matter the country, their cause is not and cannot be the same as his. For another thing, such a symbolic display of solidarity in the absence of action would be interpreted, correctly, as worse than doing and saying nothing. Nothing would please his domestic enemies more than to be able to mock his empty symbolism and falsely impute Islamist sympathies to him, and nothing would suit Mousavi’s enemies more than to be able to tie Mousavi to the United States through that symbolic identification. While we’re at it, it would be seen as an attempt to use worldwide sympathy for the movement in question to bolster himself politically while doing absolutely nothing for the people with whom he supposedly sympathizes. It would give the regime the pretext of treating Mousavi as an American lackey. They may do this in any case, but Washington need not enable or provide justification for this. The administration’s wait-and-see approach is the right one.

He’s right. The American president is, for good and bad, in a unique position.  As important and powerful as the leaders of the UK, France, and Germany are, they’re not the international lightning rods that the occupants of the White House are.

Aside from the fact that backing from America could quite likely harm Mousavi’s cause and help Ahmadinejad’s, big words from the Leader of the Free WorldTM must be backed up by action in a way that a statement by the European Union do not.

In a Twitter interview with ABC’s Jake Tapper, Obama’s opponent in the most recent election, Arizona Senator John McCain made some bold statements along the lines of his campaign rhetoric about “We’re all Georgians now.”  Most notable of his tweets: “we must stand strong for democracy in Iran as we stood for Democracy in Poland, Germany, and Czechoslovakia” and “if we are steadfast eventually the Iranian people will prevail.”

Those are admirable words, indeed.  And they come from a man who has spent more than half a century serving his country, including decades in the United States Navy, seven of them in a Viet Cong prison camp.  So he doesn’t need any lectures on the consequences of fighting for freedom.

But the fact of the matter is that standing for democracy in Poland, Germany, and Czechoslovakia mainly consisted of, well, standing.  True, we had American troops stationed in West Germany for decades before the fall of the Berlin Wall.  But we didn’t directly confront the Soviets short of Ronald Reagan’s demand to “tear down this wall.”  Our suport for Poland’s freedom came mostly in hamhanded statements like Gerald Ford’s line about their not being under Soviet domination and some cheering for Lech Walesa and company.  We did ultimately intervene in Czechoslovakia — but the Cold War had ended by then.

Center for American Progress fellow Matthew Yglesias is too snarky by half in his retort to McCain’s second tweet above: “That’s right. Whether or not the Iranian people prevail depends on how steadfast we are. How steadfast we are in what? In wishing them well? In tweeting mean things about the Iranian security services?” But he’s right when he implies that non-actions along those lines are the extent of what America can reasonably be expected to do.

Ambassador Nicholas Burns, who negotiated with Iran for the George W. Bush administration, agrees.  This morning, he told NPR that “President Ahmadinejad would like nothing better than to see a very aggressive series of statements by the United States that would try to put the U.S. in the center of this. And I think President Obama is avoiding that quite rightly.” He added, “This is not a dispute for the U.S. to be the center of. It’s up to Iranians to decide who Iran’s future leaders will be.”

The Atlantic‘s Andrew Sullivan, probably the American blogosphere’s most passionate supporter of the Iranian protestors, writes, “I’m relieved we don’t have a president McCain. His heart is in the right place but his head is a blogger’s, not a president’s.”  My strong guess, though, is that, had McCain prevailed in November, he would be saying much the same thing.   Presidential candidates and senators have the luxury of  spouting off about their ideal, while a president’s words have much more consequence.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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