In the middle of the last century, the U.S. overthrew Iran's democratically elected leader, Muhammad Mossadeq. Some think it happened too long ago to be a major factor in today's protests; some disagree. But it's shaping how both the Iranian and U.S. governments react to what's happening in the streets of Tehran.
Accusations of U.S. interference have been rampant in the past weeks as the Iranian government plays on history and old fears. Even before the June 12 election took place, Iran's main state-run newspaper warned that Western interference in the election was likely; since then, warnings and accusations of intervention have been steady; today, Iran's foreign ministry accused the U.N. of interfering in its affairs.
That's the backdrop against which the White House has charted its course in commenting on Iran, amid domestic calls for a more forceful condemnation of the election that, to be clear, everyone (except President Obama in public) agrees was fake. The administration withheld comment at first, though Joe Biden did say two days later that the administration had "doubts" about the election; on Saturday, President Obama issued this statement, hinting at Iran's suppression of ideas as he praised freedoms of speech and assembly and called on the regime to cease its violence against protesters.
And today, Obama offered his most forceful criticism of the Iranian regime so far.
"The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days. I strongly condemn these unjust actions," Obama said at his press conference today in the West Wing.
He repeated his call for Iran to "govern through consent, not coercion."
He remained agnostic on the election's actual results, restricting his commentary to the Iranian government's response. "There is significant questions about the legitimacy of the election," he said, but noted that "we didn't have international observers on the ground" at polling places, so we can't really know for sure.
He stated clearly that the U.S. is not interfering and that claims otherwise are false.
"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," Obama said, referencing similar claims about the CIA. "All of which is patently false."
The U.S. backed Mossadeq's overthrow in 1953. It's been said that this was too long ago to be relevant to today's protests--that Obama needn't tread lightly in context of America's poor historical record on Iranian democracy. After all, the protesters are young, and Eisenhower isn't immediately relevant to U.S. politics today.
But Guardian columnist Stephen Kinzer reports that Mossadeq has come up in Iran today as a symbol, that his face has adorned signs alongside that of Mir Hossein Mousavi, and that Iranians have drawn a parallel between the two men.
Mossadeq, as Kinzer points out, is a symbol both for democracy and for freedom of intervention.