In other words, he recognized that Ronald Reagan's aggressive policies had set history in Eastern Europe in motion, and that it was now his own task to slow it down – to allow liberal change to settle in with minimal bloodshed. Tiananmen was fresh in his memory—a bloody repression by another communist regime against its democratic opponents. His fear of instigating another such event governed his decisions in Europe.
Obama now faces a similar challenge.
History has been set in motion in Iran. Though only dozens have been killed so far, the possibility of hundreds or more dying in a bloody upheaval is not out of the question. One ayatollah has even called for executions. Obama's goal must be political change and liberation in Teheran with minimal bloodshed. And he simply cannot accomplish that by putting America's fingerprints all over the democracy movement there. How he handles this could mean the difference between a massive crackdown by a terror-promoting, radical regime (who would likely retain complete control for years to come), and a gradual behind-the-scenes transformation, as the clerisy moves delicately away from the "Death to America" mantra of previous decades. In that regard, like the elder Bush vis-à-vis Eastern Europe, the less Obama says about Iran these days the better. It's not about winning an argument, as some commentators appear to believe; it's about effecting change, indirectly, in a complex society half-a-world away.
The fact is that various scenarios are possible for Iran, and the United States must prepare for all of them by not rhetorically boxing itself in. It is very possible that the hardliners in Iran will win the immediate power struggle, and seek, months down the road, to engage the U.S. as a way to take some of the wind out of the sails of the democratic opposition. With a nuclear Iran a not-so-distant reality, America's national interest dictates that it set itself up properly for such a circumstance. If the democrats eventually win the power struggle, the U.S. will be in an optimum position in any case. It is the less-than-optimum scenario that the U.S. has to prepare for. Recall that the elder Bush's muted rhetoric did not harm the democracy movements in Eastern Europe one bit; in fact, it might have helped them, by reducing the threat of a Soviet military response.
Iran, because of its size, its well-educated population, its geographical logic - there is relatively little artificial about its frontiers - and its position straddling the oil-rich Caspian Sea and the oil-rich Persian Gulf, is the most powerful and influential nation in the Moslem world. It retains the ability to destabilize Iraq—and even a small shift in its foreign policy could promote stability in Lebanon or further Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. Obama cannot afford to get Iran wrong.