By BEN FELLER
AP White House Correspondent
WASHINGTON — Warily watching protests ripple across the Middle East, President Barack Obama said Tuesday that governments in the vital, volatile region are figuring out that they “can’t maintain power through coercion.” He slammed Iran as an exception, accusing the U.S. foe of beating and shooting protesters.
The public uprisings that toppled the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia have ignited protests and violent clashes in Bahrain, Yemen and Iran. With strategic U.S. interests in each of those countries, Obama conceded he is concerned about the region’s stability. And he prodded governments to get out ahead of the change.
In his most expansive comments yet about the unrest spilling across the Middle East and north Africa, Obama signaled that he would stick with his Egyptian model: Prod governments to allow peaceful protests and to respond to grievances, but stay silent about who should run the countries or what change should look like.
The Egyptian experience has cemented Obama’s doctrine of dealing with countries grappling with upheaval: direction that falls short of dictates. He said the lesson for all the nations is that they will only see lasting change, and gain both international and internal support for it, when it comes through “moral force.”
“These are sovereign countries that are going to have to make their own decisions,” Obama said at his first full news conference of the year. “What we can do is lend moral support to those who are seeking a better life for themselves.”
Whether moral support is enough is often the issue as the United States tries to help shape events in the Middle East that are out of its control. The unrest in the region, and its potential impact on leadership of friendly and rival nations, can in turn affect U.S. economic, military and security interests.
Obama singled out Iran, where hardline lawmakers are calling for the country’s opposition leaders to face trial and be put to death. Tens of thousands of people turned out for an opposition rally Monday in solidarity with Egypt’s revolt, the first such demonstration since a violent crackdown on protesters in 2009.
“I find it ironic that you’ve got the Iranian regime pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt when, in fact, they have acted in direct contrast to what happened in Egypt by gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully in Iran,” Obama said.
What began with an uprising in Tunisia emboldened massive protests in Egypt, mobilized in part by the social media networks Facebook and Twitter. In less than three weeks, autocratic Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down under enormous pressure, and the makings of a democracy are under way.
Now the White House is trying to get ahead of events across the Arab world even as Obama encourages other leaders to do the same.
In Bahrain, thousands of protesters took over a main square in the capital city Tuesday, trying to force high-level changes. Bahrain is one Washington’s key allies in the Gulf and home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, so the unrest there adds another worry for the White House.
In Yemen, police and government supporters battled nearly 3,000 marchers calling for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in a fifth straight day of violence. That comes as ties between the U.S. and Saleh have been growing over alarm in Washington about the activities of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
Obama said his message to friends and foes in the region is this: “The world is changing.”
“You have a young, vibrant generation within the Middle East that is looking for greater opportunity,” he said. “And if you are governing these countries, you’ve got to get out ahead of change. You can’t be behind the curve.”
The president suggested that authoritarian rule is giving way to fundamental desires by people to get good jobs, an education and a better life.
“You can’t maintain power through coercion,” Obama said. “At some level in any society, there has to be consent.”
And then he added: “My belief is that, as a consequence of what’s happening in Tunisia and Egypt, governments in that region are starting to understand this.”
Throughout the Egyptian power crisis, the White House fended off questions about its position — whether it was consistent, whether it was forceful enough in support of people seeking freedoms, whether the administration was adequately anticipating events.
Once the outcome became clear, with Mubarak forced out of power and a peaceful, initial transition to democracy, the White House spoke with a vindicated tone. Obama did so directly when questioned Tuesday.
“I think history will end up recording that at every juncture in the situation in Egypt, that we were on the right side of history,” he said. “What we didn’t do was pretend that we could dictate the outcome in Egypt, because we can’t.”
As for other protesters across the region, Obama said he supported their aspirations, but insisted that the outcomes will be up to them.
“We do want to make sure that transitions do not degenerate into chaos,” he said. “That’s not just good for us. That’s good for those countries.”