Barack Obama should give another speech. Soon, maybe tomorrow. He should address this one to the people of Iran, whose eagerness for a political voice - a real political voice - is obvious in the photographs and reports from the streets of Tehran in the last 24 hours.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's supposedly decisive victory over Mir Hussein Moussavi is almost certainly fraudulent. Most reports over the final week of the campaign suggested that either Moussavi would win outright, by earning more than 50 percent of the votes cast, or that he and Ahmadinejad would go head-to-head in a second election next week. Instead, Iran's Interior Ministry claims that Ahmadinejad won some 63 percent of the vote to Moussavi's 34 percent. Unlikely.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs put out a rather limp statement early Saturday afternoon: "Like the rest of the world, we were impressed by the vigorous debate and enthusiasm that this election generated, particularly among young Iranians. We continue to monitor the entire situation closely, including reports of irregularities."
Shouldn't the United States government be doing more than monitoring irregularities?
Let's take the claims of President Obama and his supporters at face value. Let's assume they are correct that his speech in Cairo, together with the mere fact of his presidency, has given the United States momentum in the region. Let's assume that Obama meant what he said when he called for a "new beginning" for the region and relations with the United States.
Isn't now the time to consolidate and build on those gains by using that popularity to destabilize Ahmadinejad and the hardliners in Iran? He does not need to call openly for an uprising, but he should be taking the accounts of reporters and our intelligence operatives in Iran and broadcasting them to the world. He should be amplifying the voices of the Iranians who have, once again, been deprived of any say in how they will be governed, and using them to pressure the Iranian regime at a time when it is plainly very fragile.
The scenes are dramatic. According to the New York Times:
After a mostly quiet morning in Tehran, Moussavi supporters began filtering onto the streets. By early afternoon, thousands had come together, many of them wearing the trademark green of his campaign, chanting angrily that they would fight on as Mr. Moussavi had urged them to do on Friday night when he claimed that he had won and that there had been voting "irregularities."
Moussavi is not a moderate. He is a proponent of terror, an advocate of Iran's nuclear program and an anti-Semite who has called for the destruction of Israel. There are many reasons to be skeptical that he would bring serious change to Iran's foreign policy, if any. But since he was declared the loser in yesterday's contest, he has boldly challenged the results and, by extension, the mullahs. More from the Times:
"I am the absolute winner of the election by a very large margin," Mr. Moussavi said during a news conference with reporters just after 11 p.m. Friday, adding: "It is our duty to defend people's votes. There is no turning back."
A statement posted on Mr. Moussavi's Web site on Saturday morning urged his supporters to resist a "governance of lie and dictatorship," according to The Associated Press.
"I'm warning that I won't surrender to this manipulation," he said, adding that the election outcome "is nothing but shaking the pillars of the Islamic Republic of Iran sacred system and governance of lie and dictatorship."
He warned "people won't respect those who take power through fraud" and said the decision to declare Mr. Ahmadinejad the winner was a "treason to the votes of the people."
This is stunning defiance in a police state. (And perhaps the most interesting sentence in the Times article was the one that reported Moussavi's whereabouts were unknown.) Moussavi's supporters and others are following his lead, protesting in the streets despite the very obvious and serious risks of doing so.
Obama could tap into the enthusiasm and frustration of the protesters with a few well-chosen words about democracy, the rule of law, the will of the people, consent of the governed and legitimacy. He could choose a compelling story or two from inside Iran to make his points most dramatically, perhaps an anecdote about sacrifices some Iranians made to vote or an example of post-election intimidation.
When Barack Obama was elected, his supporters promised that his foreign policy would seek to effect important change in the world without using force, that he would deploy soft power - or, as Hillary Clinton put it during her confirmation, "smart power."
Now is the time.