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Mousavi Spokesman Smacks Obama

9:00 PM, Jun 18, 2009 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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In an interview with the Washington Post's Foreign Policy blog, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, described as Mir Hussein Mousavi's "external spokesman," had some sharp words for President Barack Obama's recent comments about the demonstrations in Tehran. But Makhmalbaf also said some things that could make it even more difficult for Obama to maintain his passive, pro-stability approach to the ongoing struggle for power in Iran.

FP: There has been growing criticism here in Washington that U.S. President Barack Obama hasn't said or done enough to support those demonstrating in the streets of Iran. Do you think Obama is being too careful? Or even that he is helping Ahmadinejad by being cautious?

MM: Obama has said that there is no difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi. Does he like it himself [when someone is] saying that there is no difference between Obama and [George W.] Bush? Ahmadinejad is the Bush of Iran. And Mousavi is the Obama of Iran.

One assumes that if Obama's full-throated support for the protesters would do great damage to their cause, as many Obama defenders have suggested, Mousavi's spokesman might have taken the opportunity to say so. He didn't.

And later, in what could also be understood as rebuke of Obama -- who has gone to great lengths to avoid saying anything casting doubt on the legitimacy of the Ahmadinejad government and who, in his comments on CNBC earlier this week repeatedly referred to the thuggish regime as "the Iranian government" -- Makhmalbaf asked the international community not to recognize the government of Ahmadinejad as a legitimate government.

FP: Does Mousavi have a message that he'd like to deliver to the international community?

MM: [He asks] that the governments [of the world] pay attention to the people in the streets and do not recognize the government of Ahmadinejad as the representative of Iran -- [that they] do not recognize the government of Ahmadinejad as a legitimate government.

And later, in the same answer, Makhmalbaf offered a view that contradicts claims from some Obama supporters that the outcome of these elections is just an Iranian matter.

Earlier today, for example, John Kerry wrote: "We can't escape the reality that for reformers in Tehran to have any hope for success, Iran's election must be about Iran - not America. And if the street protests of the last days have taught us anything, it is that this is an Iranian moment, not an American one."

That, of course, is a straw man. No one has made such an argument. Many of those who want Obama to take a stronger public position against the fraudulent elections and in favor of the protesters want him to do so not to make this an American moment, but so that the American president might simply recognize the importance -- to Iran and to the world -- of this Iranian moment. (And some of us have even called it the Iranian Moment.)

In any case, the spokesman for Mousavi, the man at the center of those streets protests of these last days, says it it not just about Iran, but the world.

Iran is a very important country in the region, and the changes in Iran could have an influence everywhere. So as a result, it's not only an internal matter -- it's an international problem. If Iran could be a democratic Islamic country, that would be a pattern, a role model, for other Islamic countries. And even if Iran has a terrorist image [today], it would be a model for other countries [in the future].

Perhaps the most interesting comments from Makhmalbaf came when he was asked what he told Europeans on a recent trip to the European Parliament. "I asked the European Parliament to listen to the voice of the people of Iran who are in the streets. They don't want Ahmadinejad. They don't want nuclear bombs. They don't want atomic bombs. They want peace in the world and democracy in Iran."

This may or may not be true. (See here for some polling on the issue.) And Mousavi was prime minister when Iran's secret nuclear program began and he said during the campaign that he would not suspend uranium enrichment.

Still, he signaled a willingness to negotiate about Iran's nuclear program. Before the election there were many reasons to be pessimistic about the likely success of any nuclear negotiations with Iran (and good reasons to avoid engaging in them with Ahmadinejad).

But now, from an American perspective, there is now a big difference in what the two sides in Iran are saying about nuclear weapons. It may just be rhetoric. But, in my view, virtually any outcome is better than more President Ahmadinejad. And on the unlikely chance that it's not just rhetoric -- can President Obama afford to stay neutral?