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Commentary: Obama must speak out on Iran

  • Story Highlights
  • Ruben Navarrette: White House says it doesn't want to "meddle" in Iran
  • He says U.S. has long history of speaking out about other nations
  • He says Obama should back the protesters against tyrannical power
  • Navarrette: It's time to stand tall and stand with the people of Iran
By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the San Diego Union-Tribune editorial board, a nationally syndicated columnist and a regular contributor to

Ruben Navarrette says the White House's neutrality on Iran protests is a disappointment to lovers of freedom.

Ruben Navarrette says the White House's neutrality on Iran protests is a disappointment to lovers of freedom.

SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- With Iran suffering a political earthquake, allow me to put in a good word for meddling.

I realize there will always be those Americans who recoil at the idea of U.S. military intervention or economic sanctions -- or, for that matter, even just tersely worded statements from the White House -- because, they insist, the United States should not interfere with the domestic affairs of other countries.

Since when? The United States has, for decades, interfered with the destinies of other nations - in Asia, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere.

In fact, just recently, President Obama took to interfering in the Middle East by scolding Israel for its treatment of Palestinians and its settlements in the West Bank.

Yet now, in a real disappointment to anyone who values freedom, Obama has declared his reluctance to "meddle" in the aftermath of the disputed Iranian presidential election even as hundreds of thousands of protesters put themselves at risk on the streets of Tehran.

Sometimes, the only correct course of action is to meddle. Here you have the brutal repression of political dissent, the suppression of free speech and the beating and gunning down of dissidents. College students are reportedly being beaten in their dormitories by government thugs and threatened with worse if they don't stop protesting.

In the street, armed police officers whale on old ladies and teenagers with clubs, as demonstrators carry unconscious comrades bleeding from head wounds. And -- in what served as my wake-up call -- the government shut down foreign media coverage by revoking the press credentials of foreign correspondents and restricting them to their hotels.

That was an ominous sign of what may be coming. With the curtain drawn, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad must think he can crush his opponents once and for all and the world will be none the wiser.

Luckily for the cause of freedom, the tyrant wasn't prepared for Twitter and other social network tools that protesters are using to get the word out about what they're experiencing. Many demonstrators are also using their own video cell phones to get images out of Iran.

This is some of what White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs seems to be missing. At a White House news conference this week, Gibbs insisted the administration's concerns regarding Iran had not changed since the election.

"Regardless of who emerges from this election," Gibbs said in answer to a question. "there are still two principal national interests that this country has relating to Iran. First is their pursuit of a nuclear weapon, and second is their support and sponsorship of terror."

Sure, those things are important. But Gibbs must be joking. The dramatic events of the last week haven't had an impact at all on administration policy with Iran? That's mind-boggling.

These freedom fighters in blue jeans are brave heroes to the cause of democracy, and, from the looks of it, they could use a little help. They'd probably settle for an encouraging word from the president of the United States that he is in their corner and prepared to hold Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accountable for what happens to them.

I'm not talking about sending in the 101st Airborne, or the Special Forces. I'm just talking about Obama doing something that, as we all know, he does awfully well: giving a speech.

The president needs to say to the world that we're choosing sides in this conflict and that we're rooting for the protesters against the people who are trying to beat them into submission and suppress the tides of progress.

He needs to abandon his neutrality and express clearly the principles that our country represents, the secret ingredient in our sauce, if you will -- what it is that makes us tick and why we are moved by what we see happening in Iran. He needs to tell the protesters with all the sincerity he can muster: "We are with you!"

Some of this is complicated; analysts are right to point out that Ahmadinejad would probably welcome U.S. intervention in one respect because it would let him deflect the heat he's feeling to the United States, which would become the convenient foil.

But Ahmadinejad is cleverly doing that already, Obama's hands-off approach notwithstanding. So what's the point of staying neutral?

Other parts of this drama are not as complicated as some people are trying to make it. The United States doesn't have the luxury of being neutral at a time of moral crisis. America is -- as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright used to say -- "the indispensable nation" that "stands tall" and "sees further into the future."

As Americans, what we see coming out of Tehran should outrage and offend us. Our country is not supposed to sit idly by while the little guy is getting the tar knocked out of him by thugs and tyrants.

We've made that mistake before, too many times and to our shame. One of the most notorious examples of staying out of the fray was our reluctance to confront the Holocaust in Europe in the late 1930s, even though Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration were getting word of what was happening. It was not our finest hour.

Likewise, as we watch the events unfolding in Tehran, many Americans find it easier to look away. But that is not who we are.

Mr. President, you must do better. We don't belong on the sidelines. As the leader of the world's indispensable nation, it's time to stand tall and stand with the people of Iran.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.

All About IranMahmoud AhmadinejadBarack Obama

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