I just might get myself kicked out of the Just Say No to Hopium Society for writing this, but President Barack Obama is doing the right thing with his careful response to the chaos in Iran.

The absolute right thing.

With Iranians being slaughtered, beaten and jailed by their own government for protesting a presidential election where some areas had more votes cast than registered voters, Republicans are calling on Obama to grab the presidential saber and start rattling.

They want the Democrat to spell out the punishments if the Iranian regime doesn’t change its ways. That might help Obama at the polls, where he’s finally begun to slip. But in declining to rattle the saber, the president shows admirable restraint.

For the past several days, Obama has been thwacked by Republican critics, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, for being too timid and weak on Iran. Other critics have pummeled him with images of the late President Ronald Reagan standing up to the Soviet repression of a democratic Poland, as the evil empire began to crack under Reagan’s resolve.

But Iran isn’t Poland. The themes involving freedom and self-determination may be similar, but the dynamics aren’t the same.


After an extremely cautious first several days, Obama ratcheted up the rhetoric just a bit at his Tuesday news conference, saying he’s appalled and outraged. But not enough to do anything about it publicly.

“I’ve made it clear that the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran and is not interfering with Iran’s affairs,” Obama said carefully.

A reporter asked if he was reacting to the stinging criticism of McCain and Graham.

“What do you think?” Obama asked, as some laughed. “Look, I think John McCain has genuine passion about many of these international issues, and I think that all of us share a belief that we want justice to prevail.

“But only I’m the president of the United States, and I’ve got responsibilities in making certain that we are continually advancing our national security interests and that we are not used as a tool to be exploited by other countries.

“I mean, you guys must have seen the reports. They’ve got some of the comments that I’ve made being mistranslated in Iran, suggesting that I’m telling rioters to go out and riot some more. There are reports suggesting that the CIA is behind all this. All of which are patently false. But it gives you a sense of the narrative that the Iranian government would love to play into. So members of Congress, they’ve got their constitutional duties and I’m sure they will carry them out in the way they think is appropriate.


“I’m president of the United States, and I’ll carry out my duties as I think are appropriate. All right?”

Not all of his news conference was so smooth. Reporters pestered him about his smoking, and one likened him to the big-eared Spock from “Star Trek” (a character Obama himself identifies with), and there was that ham-handed stunt in which Obama “spontaneously” called on a Huffington Post scribe whose question appeared pre-approved by the White House.

But all the spin can’t change this fact: The slightest inflection in Obama’s voice will be used by the regime in Iran to brand its opposition as American puppets, as agents of the Great Satan, and give them the cover needed to continue clubbing the dissenters to the ground.

All this is horrible and extremely emotional, but I remember a time not too long ago when a Republican president became emotional over what was going on in Iraq before the invasion, and a few writers, myself included, allowed emotion to color our reason.

Later, I promised myself never to make that same mistake twice. Obama can’t even make that mistake once.

Complicating all this is that Israel might attack, to knock down the growing Iranian nuclear capacity that threatens Israel. Such an attack might destabilize the Iranian regime, but it would certainly provide another anti-American rallying cry for radical Islamists throughout the world, at a time when Obama is reaching out to Muslim nations.


So, our president doesn’t even have the freedom of a candidate to say what he feels.

That’s not to say he was unfeeling. The video-recorded death of that young Iranian woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, is a highly emotional symbol, crystallizing the violence.
“It’s heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking,” Obama said. “And I think that anybody who sees it knows that there’s something fundamentally unjust about that.”

But a death, even one that is fundamentally unjust, is just one death. What Obama is offering is sympathy, not saber-rattling.

Saber-rattling won’t serve American interests now. What’s required is restraint and clear-headedness. And that’s what President Obama is delivering.

John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. E-mail jskass@tribune.com.

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