Editor's note: A nationally syndicated columnist, Roland S. Martin is the author of "Listening to the Spirit Within: 50 Perspectives on Faith" and "Speak, Brother! A Black Man's View of America." Visit his Web site for more information.
Roland S. Martin says America's history with Iran has not been a happy one.
(CNN) -- Critics of President Obama, mostly Republicans, have seethed that he has not been more forceful in ripping the theocratic leadership in Iran for their brutal handling of protesters angry with what they see as a stolen election.
In Tuesday's press conference, the president toughened his talk, saying, "The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings and imprisonments of the last few days."
Still, Obama's measured and calm approach has been right on target, while his critics have been totally off base.
What these shortsighted naysayers should do is pick up a history book, or take a quick trip to Langley, Virginia, and let the CIA tell them our own sordid past with Iran.
Whenever U.S. relations with Iran are raised, everyone seems to want to refer back to 1979, when our embassy was overrun by militants and Americans were taken hostage for 444 days. The nation, and the world, was captivated by the drama, and many consider the affair the chief reason why President Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election.
The Iranian revolution of that era is what led to today's theocratic rule in Iran, where the clerics hold sway over every facet of the country. They replaced the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, himself a dictator who ruled with an iron fist with the help of his CIA-trained death squads. How did he come to power? The United States helped overthrow a democratically elected government in Iran.
To understand the hatred of the United States in Iran, we have to go further back than 1979 -- to 1953, when Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh had the gall to care more about his country than what the British and the United States wanted.
The two superpowers were angry that he nationalized oil interests -- at the time Anglo-Iranian Oil, now known as British Petroleum, was receiving 93 percent of oil proceeds and the Iranians were getting 7 percent.
So with the CIA leading the charge, along with British intelligence, the United States helped destabilize the country, blocked the importing of goods, spread leaflets around the country blasting Mossadegh for a lack of leadership, and used local goons to lead protests.
It was this effort that led to the installation of the Shah of Iran, who subsequently had Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini exiled. Khomeini was a revolutionary leader who used his voice to label the United States the "Great Satan" for its actions.
Nice history lesson, you might say, but what does it have to do with today? Everything.
Khomeini rose to power by blasting the United States for intervening in the affairs of Iran. It was the younger voices in Iran who responded to his criticism of the United States, and they cast their lot with a revolutionary figure rather than the pro-Western Shah of Iran.
One of those young men who cared more about their own country than the interests of the United States? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, now the president of Iran (A fascinating account of our sordid history with Iran is detailed in Stephen Kinzer's "Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq").
President Obama knows that every word uttered by U.S. leaders can be turned right around and used against the protesters who are in the streets. He also understands how deep resentment of the United States is in Iran, and if the clerics can successfully get people to believe that the United States is behind the protests, they have the possibility of using America as the scapegoat.
Isn't it ironic that the president's conservative critics want him to stand up for democracy in Iran, when it was the United States that chose to destroy democracy and install a dictator we could control more than 50 years ago?
Folks, democracy can never be imported. It must be homegrown. If we look at our own Civil Rights Movement, the democratic movement in Poland and all of Eastern Europe, they were all driven by the people at the bottom, not the top.
We are seeing a remarkable amount of courage in Iran. The people there are tired of being treated like children, and are putting their lives on the line to demand change in the country.
Instead of inflaming tensions, the United States should continue to issue tempered comments, and allow the people in the streets to drive this issue. This should not become a U.S. vs. Iran discussion.
If the focus remains on those demanding change in the streets of Iran, especially if the beatings and oppression continues -- remember Selma, Alabama, and Bloody Sunday? -- then those who are silent in Iran will be silent no more, and other countries will begin to weigh in on the brutality.
The change we desire in Iran will not happen with a press release or a comment by the president of the United States or even a congressional resolution. We must show support, but from a distance. The United States played a direct role in the mess we see in Iran today. It's best that we shut up and allow Iran to determine Iran's fate.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roland S. Martin.
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