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Iran Election Poses Dilemma for Obama Administration


The controversial outcome of Iran's presidential election and subsequent protests are rippling across the globe, particularly in Washington, where President Barack Obama has pledged to open a dialogue with Tehran. Analysts say that such a diplomatic opening is a touchy proposition, especially now.

Iran's disputed presidential election has put President Obama in an awkward position. Analysts say that Mr. Obama must be seen as approving of the protesters without backing them - a critical difference in a country where foreign support can be construed as interference in domestic affairs.

Reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi lost to incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in what Iranian officials say was a landslide victory. Mr. Mousavi denounced the election as rigged, and thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Tehran in protests the scale of which has not been seen in Iran in 30 years.

Republican U.S. Senator John McCain, who knows firsthand what it means to lose a presidential election, having lost to Mr. Obama last year, said on NBC television's Today show that Mr. Obama should denounce the election outright.

"He should speak out that this is a corrupt, fraud, sham of an election. The Iranian people have been deprived of their rights. We support them in their struggle against a repressive, oppressive regime. And they should not be subjected to four more years of Ahmadinejad and the radical Muslim clerics," McCain said.

But Mr. Obama has refused to do so, saying it would be inappropriate.

"It is not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling, the U.S. president meddling in Iranian elections. What I will repeat, and what I said yesterday, is that when I see violence directed at peaceful protesters, when I see peaceful dissent being suppressed, wherever that takes place, it is of concern to me and of concern to the American people," Mr. Obama said.

Nicholas Burns, who was U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs during the Bush administration, praises Mr. Obama for walking a very fine line.

"He was very careful not to insert the United States in the middle of this conflict. In fact, he said it's only the people of Iran who can determine Iran's future. I think this is the right way forward for President Obama and for the United States to be - of course, committed to human freedom in Iran, but to also say, 'This is an Iranian struggle, only Iranians can work it out, because of the very complicated relationship that the United States and Iran have had over the last 30 years,'" Burns said.

Alex Vatanka, Senior Middle East Analyst for Jane's Information Group, says it is right for the president not to prematurely condemn what are questionable, but still murky election results.

"Let the Iranians deal with this. And if they need support, if things get out of hand, the U.S. can step in. But when you don't really know how much of an election rigging took place and all the rest of it, when you don't have all the facts, when you don't know if this is just some sort of an internal regime family feud, it would be too early for the U.S. to jeopardize the idea of a greater rapprochement with Iran at this stage," he said.

Mr. Obama has pledged to open a dialogue with Iran. And most observers were watching to see what he would do after the election.

Burns, who now teaches foreign policy at Harvard University, says the current upheaval might delay the Obama administration's outreach, but it is not likely to derail it. "I think that President Obama has been correct in saying that it's time that we sit down with our adversaries, it's time that we have a negotiation with Iran. But certainly that is not going to take place in the next week or two. Everything has its time. And right now, the proper place for the United States to be is on the sidelines, watching and hoping that something good can happen out of these very serious events in Iran," he said.

Many analysts say that a victory by reformist-minded Mir Hossein Mousavi would have made rapprochement between Washington and Tehran easier. But other analysts point out that power in Iran, especially in foreign affairs, is concentrated in the hands of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, making the president of Iran almost irrelevant to a U.S.-Iranian dialogue.

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