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A cautious U.S. role in Iran

President Barack Obama's initial response to the demonstrations in the streets of Tehran apparently was too slow and too weak for his critics. But the criticism is coming mostly from the president's political opponents, who see an opening to undermine his approach to foreign policy. Most Americans, however, don't regard political expediency as a legitimate substitute for thoughtful foreign policy.

The U.S.-Iran relationship, which has been antagonistic for 30 years, is on the verge of changing, not because of anything the president has done, but because of a popular uprising that has Iranians in the streets to protest what appears to be a fraudulent election.

The bottom-up protests should not have a U.S. component to them at this point, other than for the American president and leaders of other democracies to show support for the right of the protesters to speak out. The last thing the growing democracy movement in Iran needs is for the oppressive regime to be able to make the case that "U.S. interference" is driving the demonstrators.

A few partisan critics of the Obama administration compare the "Axis of Evil" designation that President George W. Bush hung on Iran with Obama's allegedly weak rhetoric. Which raises the question: How did the Bush policy work out? Not well, the evidence confirms. All through the Bush years, Iran ramped up its belligerence toward the West, continued to arm terrorist organizations and marched ahead with its plan to acquire nuclear weapons. If those results translate into smart American foreign policy, then John F. Kennedy's Bay of Pigs disaster was brilliant.

The violent protests in Iran already are having an effect on the leadership. With the country's middle class appalled by the bloody response to the demonstrations, prominent members of the ruling elite are breaking with the government. Even if the current regime retains power, the political equation has changed. The government's legitimacy is damaged. By any measure, the election process looks to be illegitimate. The pronouncement by the top mullah that the election was fair has undermined his credibility. His call to end the protests has been ignored. A nation that shook off the tyranny of the Shah 30 years ago seems poised to shake off the tyranny of the mullahs.

The U.S. role must be calibrated, not rigid, in order to capitalize when Iran is ready to improve its relationship with the West, which seems to be one factor motivating the protesters.