A Worried U.S. Says Little About Iran's Rising Turmoil
By PHILIP SHENON
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
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
"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."