Obama: Mideast leaders must face calls for reform
February 15th, 2011
01:26 PM ET

Obama: Mideast leaders must face calls for reform

By CNN Wires Staff

WASHINGTON (CNN) - Middle Eastern leaders "can't be behind the curve" as their populations demand change, President Barack Obama said Tuesday after protesters forced out Egypt's longtime strongman and faced a government crackdown in Iran.

Speaking at a White House news conference, Obama said Iran's clerical leadership is "pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt" while "gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully."

Mindful of the Islamic republic's accusations that the United States and other powers were behind Monday's opposition protests in Tehran and other cities, Obama said Washington can "lend moral support to those who are seeking a better life for themselves."

"My hope and expectation is is that we're going to continue to see the people of Iran have the courage to be able to express their yearning for greater freedoms and a more representative government, understanding that America cannot ultimately dictate what
happens inside of Iran any more than it could inside of Egypt; that ultimately these are sovereign countries that are going to have to make their own decisions," Obama said.

A wave of protests have targeted Middle Eastern states since mid-January, when weeks of anti-government demonstrations forced Tunisian autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia.

On Friday, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down after ruling his nation for nearly 30 years, and other opposition movements have taken to the streets in Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain and Sudan.

Obama said his administration has told Middle Eastern leaders that "the world is changing," and "You can't be behind the curve."

"I think that the thing that will actually achieve stability in that region is if young people, if ordinary folks, end up feeling that there are pathways for them to feed their families, get a decent job, get an education, aspire to a better life," he said. "And the more steps these governments are taking to provide these avenues for mobility and opportunity, the more stable these countries are. You can't maintain power through coercion."

Public discontent has long been openly seen and heard in Iran, where citizens staged demonstrations against the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to protest the disputed presidential elections in 2009, a contest regarded by many as rigged.

But security forces have confronted the protesters with ruthless force. Peaceful change has not been able to take root and opposition leaders have been repressed by the regime.

The latest protest was on Monday in downtown Tehran, when thousands of demonstrators took to the streets, and government forces roughed up some protesters.

The Iranian government blocked the homes of opposition leaders after they called for rallies in support of the uprising in Egypt.

About 200 protesters - some of whom chanted "death to Khamenei" and "death to the dictator" - set fire to several trash bins in the capital city and threw rocks at security forces, who tried unsuccessfully to subdue them, witnesses said. The chanting protesters apparently were referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme religious leader.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton slammed the Iranian government's actions and noted the huge numbers of demonstrators, saying that "what we see happening in Iran today is a testament to the courage of the Iranian people and an indictment of the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime."

She said Iran illustrated its true nature in its crackdown.

"Our message has been consistent and it remains the same, and we wish the opposition and the brave people in the streets across cities in Iran the same opportunity that they saw their Egyptian counterparts seize in the last week."

Topics: President Obama • The News

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