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Mideast leaders must face reform calls, Obama says

By the CNN Wire Staff
  • Obama praises Iranian protesters and offers U.S. "moral support"
  • "You can't maintain power through coercion," Obama advises Mideast leaders
  • Protesters have forced regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt

Washington (CNN) -- Middle Eastern leaders "can't be behind the curve" as their populations demand change, President Barack Obama said Tuesday after protesters forced out Egypt's longtime strongman and faced a government crackdown in Iran.

Speaking at a White House news conference, Obama said Iran's clerical leadership is "pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt" while "gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully."

Mindful of the Islamic republic's accusations that the United States and other powers were behind Monday's opposition protests in Tehran and other cities, Obama said Washington can "lend moral support to those who are seeking a better life for themselves."

"My hope and expectation is is that we're going to continue to see the people of Iran have the courage to be able to express their yearning for greater freedoms and a more representative government, understanding that America cannot ultimately dictate what happens inside of Iran any more than it could inside of Egypt; that ultimately these are sovereign countries that are going to have to make their own decisions," Obama said.

Protests have swept through Middle Eastern states since mid-January, when weeks of anti-government demonstrations forced Tunisian autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia. On Friday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down after ruling his nation for nearly 30 years, and other opposition movements have taken to the streets in Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain and Sudan.

Obama said his administration has told Middle Eastern leaders that "the world is changing," and "you can't be behind the curve."

"I think that the thing that will actually achieve stability in that region is if young people, if ordinary folks, end up feeling that there are pathways for them to feed their families, get a decent job, get an education, aspire to a better life," he said. "And the more steps these governments are taking to provide these avenues for mobility and opportunity, the more stable these countries are. You can't maintain power through coercion."

Domestic critics have accused the Obama administration of failing to adequately support reformers in Iran while vacillating on Egypt. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, a possible Republican challenger in 2012, blasted Obama last week for siding with the Egyptian protesters while turning his back on Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally. Another potential GOP contender, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, called the administration's messaging on Egypt "incoherent."

But in January, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Arab leaders that unless they reform and address economic and social frustrations, their regimes would "sink into the sand." And House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday that the administration handled "a very difficult situation about as well as it could be handled."

Public discontent has long been openly seen and heard in Iran, where citizens staged demonstrations against the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to protest the disputed presidential elections in 2009, a contest regarded by many as rigged. Security forces have confronted the protesters with ruthless force, and peaceful change has not been able to take root.

The latest protest was on Monday in downtown Tehran, when thousands of demonstrators took to the streets, and government forces roughed up some protesters. The Iranian government blocked the homes of opposition leaders after they called for rallies in support of the uprising in Egypt, and about 200 protesters -- some of whom chanted "death to Khamenei" and "death to the dictator" -- clashed with security forces who tried unsuccessfully to subdue them.

Clinton slammed the Iranian government's actions Monday and noted the huge numbers of demonstrators, saying that "what we see happening in Iran today is a testament to the courage of the Iranian people and an indictment of the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime."

But Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told CNN that Iran is less vulnerable to U.S. pressure than longtime allies like Egypt.

"Iran doesn't have a ceiling in terms of the violence it can inflict on its population. It doesn't have to worry that if it brutalizes its population, America could potentially withhold aid, or America is going to hold Iran accountable. And there is not international media in Iran to bear witness like we saw in Egypt."

And unlike Egypt, Iran's opposition has clear leadership but no clear, common goals, Sadjadpour said. While older opposition leaders are calling for reform of the Islamic republic, "The younger generation of Iranians, I think, want to see a total overhaul of the system."