The Amazing Disappearing "Obama Effect" in Iran

The Times hardly mentions Barack Obama in the context of Iran, yet still sees an "Obama effect."

Barack Obama has taken criticism from conservatives and even some supporters for his silence on Iran, a sort of cool realpolitik approach that looks more and more cynical as the turmoil there shows no signs of abating, with democracy protestors challenging the authoritarian regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and suffering beatings and worse, amidst a widespread public and media crackdown.

Saturday's front-page story by Mark Landler had a slightly chiding headline, "Obama Resists Tougher Stand." But after noting that the European Union and Great Britain had taken "a markedly tougher line than Mr. Obama," Landler defended Obama's position by citing one of the Times' least favorite foreign policy mavens, Henry Kissinger, whoapparently nowrepresents Republicans:

Mr. Obama has won support from across party lines. Henry A. Kissinger, the former secretary of state, said on Fox News: "I think the president has handled this well. Anything that the United States says that puts us totally behind one of the contenders, behind Moussavi, would be a handicap for that person," he said. Mir Hussein Moussavi is the main challenger to the declared victor, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Some experts on Iran say a stronger United States response could provoke a violent backlash.

But when Obama turned and criticized the suppression in Iran, as covered in Sunday's lead story, subhead, "Obama Criticizes the Crackdown as 'Unjust,'" the Times failed to acknowledge the abrupt reversal in the president'stone from the day before.

Obama again receded into the background in Monday's lead story by Nazila Fathi and Michael Slackman, "Unrest In Iran Sharply Divides Ruling Clerics," which didn't mentionthe presidentuntil near the end, in paragraphs 22 and 23 of a 28-paragraph story.

In Washington, Mr. Obama resisted pressure from Republicans who have called his response to the Iranian crackdown too timid. On Saturday, Mr. Obama stepped up his criticism of Iran's government, calling it "violent and unjust," and said that the world was watching its behavior.

Mr. Obama has argued that a more aggressive White House stance against the Iranian government crackdown would be used by Tehran as anti-American propaganda. "The last thing that I want to do is to have the United States be a foil for those forces inside Iran who would love nothing better than to make this an argument about the United States," Mr. Obama said in an interview with Harry Smith of CBS News broadcast Friday. "We shouldn't be playing into that."

Which brings us to Tuesday's front-page, one that Executive Editor Bill Keller bragged about at a Times Talk in Midtown Manhattan on Monday night, because it featured three Iran stories. Obama was not mentioned in a single one of them. In all, the Times ran six stories about Iranin Tuesday's edition, only one of which mentioned Obama. That was "U.S. Scrambles for Information on Iran," about how the administration is finding it difficult to get reliable information out of Iran and is relying on information the same way everyone else is: YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

Tuesday'sTimes also never criticized Obama's lack of presence on the issue, though his itinerary over the last few days - ice cream jaunts and golf - would have been grounds for complaint during the Bush years.

Yet somehow amid all this evidence of Obama's purposeful absence from the debate, diplomatic reporter Helene Cooper insisted there was some kind of "Obama effect" going on in Iran in her Sunday front-page Week in Review article, "Gauging WhetherObama Is Creating Openings." She does admit, with unintentional humor, that it could be a "stealth effect" - evidently a very stealth effect.

Could there be something to all the talk of an Obama effect, after all? A stealth effect, perhaps?

As the silent protests in Tehran dominated television screens around the world last week, a peculiar debate in Washington erupted. On one side, a handful of supporters of President Bush said Iranian protesters had taken to the streets because they were emboldened by President Bush's pro-democracy stance, and the example of Shiite democracy he set up in Iraq. On the other side, some of President Obama's backers countered that the mere election ofBarack Obamain the United States had galvanized reformers inIranto demand change.

Both of those arguments gave the United States an outsize role at the epicenter of an unfolding story that most experts, and a great many Iranians who talked to pollsters, said was actually not about America at all; it was about Iran and its own problems, notably a highly disputable vote count and the performance of its president,Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Thankfully for Cooper, Bush is still available as a scapegoat:

During the Bush years, Iran's regime was able to coalesce support by uniting the country against a common enemy: President Bush, who called Iran a pillar of the "axis of evil" in a speech that alienated many of the very reformers whom the United States was trying to woo. For much of his administration, even as he strengthened Iran by toppling Iran's nemesisSaddam Hussein, Mr. Bush struck a confrontational public line against the Iranian regime.

The result, according to many experts here and in Iran, was that Iranians, including reformers, swallowed their criticism of the hard-line regime and united against the common enemy. Iranians with reformist sympathies even began advising Americans to stop openly supporting them, lest that open them to attack as pawns of America.

Mr. Obama seemed to be taking that kind of advice to heart last week - to a fault, perhaps, as even some Democratic allies said. He kept his remarks about the Iranian election so cool and detached that Republicans quickly attacked him as showing weakness in the defense of democracy.

On the other hand, he had already put in play a tool that the reformists could use in their internal debate - the notion that this could be the best time in many years in which to seek better relations with America.

Cooper concluded by spotting some "Yes We Can" stirrings in Iran:

In his campaign, Mr. Moussavi used many tactics that echoed Mr. Obama's. He pledged to re-engage politically with the United States; he used posters of himself and his wife side by side, and he hired a young chief strategist who said he looked to the Obama campaign for ideas. Mr. Moussavi, like Mr. Obama, even used social networks on the Internet to campaign. And once the count was in, his supporters found new uses for the networks in their uniquely Iranian fight.