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A Worried U.S. Says Little About Iran's Rising Turmoil

The New York Times
July y 14, 1999

The administration had hoped that the demonstrations would strengthen the hand of Iran's popular reformist leader, President Mohammad Khatami, by making clear the public's support for democracy and the rule of law, these officials said.

But with reports Tuesday night that the government had placed thousands of armed troops and police on the chaotic streets of Tehran and that street battles were raging through the capital, there was fear at the White House and the State Department that diehard Islamic revolutionaries may have the upper hand, and that the democratic movement could face a severe setback.

U.S. officials also worried that the crackdown would undermine hopes of improved relations between the United States and Iran, a goal of the Clinton administration since Khatami was elected president two years ago.

They said Khatami also appeared to be alarmed by the possibility that the protests had spun out of control. In a televised statement Tuesday night, he warned that he would use force to end the demonstrations, even though many of the protesting students are among his most passionate supporters.

"There's not much we can do but sit back and watch this unfold," said a senior administration official.

"The fact is that we have little ability any more to monitor what's happening on the ground or influence events in Iran," he said. "And any time we open our mouths about Iran, the hard-liners seize on it as evidence that we're trying to interfere with their domestic politics."

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that a clear American statement of support for the goals of the students "would simply backfire on them" by empowering their extremist enemies.

Since the students took to the streets last week, the Clinton administration has said little about the protests beyond making boilerplate statements of support for the concepts of freedom of speech and peaceful assembly, and urging Iran not to use force against the demonstrators.

"We have made it clear that we are concerned by the use of violence to put down demonstrations by Iranian students in support of freedom of expression and democratic values and the rule of law," said James Rubin, the State Department spokesman. "And we regret the injuries, the loss of life, and call for the respect of international human rights standards."

But Rubin was adamant in denying any suggestion that the United States was trying to encourage the demonstrators, who have joined in protests in at least 18 cities and towns throughout Iran.

He said it was "utter nonsense" to suggest that the United States was behind the protests in any way.

Even the limited American comments about the situation -- and similar statements by the Israeli government -- have drawn official protests in Iran. In Tehran on Tuesday, a spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry called "the statements made by officials of the U.S. and the Zionist regime" "examples of interference in Iran's internal affairs."

Richard W. Murphy of the Council on Foreign Relations, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Syria, said the Clinton administration is best advised to say nothing about the protests.

"We should keep our mouths shut," he said. "What can we contribute?

"The Iranians are making very clear through the students their unhappiness with the way the regime has conducted itself," he said. "And unfortunately, given the twists and turns of U.S.-Iranian relations, anything we say is going to be twisted by elements in the regime who want to say that the demonstrations are the work of a foreign hand. Even the most innocuous statement gives those elements credibility."


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