Before the rigged election that kept Iranian strongman Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power,liberal international columnist Roger Cohen was an apologist for the Iranian regime and a harsh critic of Israel. But now, Cohen isa born-again reformer, filing columns pretty much every day from Tehran chiding Obama and VP Biden for their "off-key" hands-off reaction to the stolen election. In Thursday's "My Name Is Iran," he briefly reverted to political form, blaming Bush's hostility toward Iranand suggesting "the world has changed with President Obama" who might spell the end of Ahmadinejad.
But in today's column "City of Whispers," Cohen cleared his throat a little more to raise his voice against Obama, saying the president "has erred on the side of caution" in Iran: "He sounds like a man rehearsing prepared lines rather than the leader of the free world."
This has become the city of whispers. Many of the people I spoke to when I arrived last week are in prison. Stabbings and shootings punctuate the night. Fear rushes down alleys and dead ends. Still the whispering continues.
The whispering is heard in the throng's silence. It is the word-of-mouth switching mechanism of Iran's uprising. I've never seen such discipline achieved with so little, millions summoned and coordinated with hardly a sound. "Silence will win against the bullets," says one banner.
The odds must still be against that. But Ahmadinejad, in his customary bipolar (but tending manic) fashion, is making nice. "We like everyone," he now says. I suppose he must mean those who are not in prison, hospital or a cemetery.
Another whisper: "Where are you from?" When I say the United States, he says: "Please give our regards to freedom."
Which brings me to President Barack Obama, who said in his inaugural speech: "Those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."
Seldom was a fist more clenched than in the ramming-through of this election result. Deceit and the attempted silencing of dissent are now Iran's everyday currency. In this city of whispers one of the whispers now is: Where is Obama?
The president has been right to tread carefully, given poisonous American-Iranian history, but has erred on the side of caution. He sounds like a man rehearsing prepared lines rather than the leader of the free world. A stronger condemnation of the violence and repression is needed. Obama should also rectify his erroneous equating, from the U.S. national security perspective, of Ahmadinejad and Moussavi.
Cohenissued a secondapology for underestimating the brutality of the Iranian regime, a trend he had somehow missed during his decades covering foreign affairs, but also took after "his critics."
When I was here earlier this year, I argued that Iran was an unfree and repressive society but also a nation offering significant margins of liberty, at least by regional standards, with which Obama's America must engage. After Iraq, I was deeply concerned that facile stereotyping of a society of "mad Mullahs" bent on nuclear Armageddon could once again set America in lockstep to war.
I underestimated how brutal the regime could be. But my critics underestimated how strong and broad the Iran of civic courage and democratic impulse is, and they misread how important this election was, dismissing it as the meaningless exercise of a clerical dictatorship.
Honesty feels heady right now. For seven years, we have lived with the arid, us-against-them formulas of Bush's menial mind, with the result that the nuanced exploration of America's hardest subject is almost giddying. Can it be that a human being, like [Obama's anti-Semitic preacher Jeremiah] Wright, or like Obama's grandmother, is actually inhabited by ambiguities? Can an inquiring mind actually explore the half-shades of truth? Yes. It. Can.