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Obama Says  Iran's 'Robust' Election Debate Hopeful Sign for US-Iran Engagement

President Barack Obama said Friday he's hopeful the robust political debate in Iran in connection with its presidential election will advance prospects for U.S.-Iranian engagement. Administration officials say plans to engage Tehran will go forward regardless of who wins the election.

Obama administration officials have been careful not to take sides in public statements on the hotly contested multi-candidate race, led by incumbent Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the relatively-moderate former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi.

But they have made no effort to conceal their fascination over the process, which featured acrimonious televised debates on major policy issues and massive public rallies.

In comments to reporters at the White House, President Obama said he was excited to see what appears to be a robust debate taking place in Iran, only days after he renewed his overture for dialogue with that country in his June 4 policy address in Cairo.

"Obviously after the speech that I made in Cairo, we tried to send a clear message that we think there's the possibility of change," he said. "And you know ultimately the election is for the Iranians to decide. But just as has been true in Lebanon, what can be true in Iran as well is that you're seeing people looking at new possibilities."

Mr. Obama said that whoever wins the election, the fact that there's been a vigorous debate will hopefully enhance the United States ability to engage Iranians "in new ways."

There were similar comments from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who at a photo session with Ecuadoran Foreign Minister Fander Falconi Benitez said it is "a very positive sign" that the Iranian people want their voices and their votes to be heard and counted.

Meanwhile, a senior State Department official who spoke to reporters on terms of anonymity said the administration's determination to seek dialogue with Iran is not dependent on any specific election outcome, and that the United States will seek to engage whoever wins.

The Obama administration, like its predecessor, has sharply condemned comments by Iranian President Ahmadinejad threatening Israel with destruction and seeming to deny the World War II Nazi extermination campaign against European Jews.

But, under questioning, the senior official said an Ahmadinejad victory is "not necessarily" a setback to the administration's engagement hopes.

He said U.S. officials believe the process will be complex and difficult regardless of the election outcome because of lingering distrust of the United States and the fact that unelected clerical leaders in Tehran may wield more power than the president on key foreign policy matters and the country's nuclear program.

He said once Iran completes the election process, which could include a presidential runoff vote, the Obama administration expects a response from Tehran to its April invitation to return to nuclear negotiations in which the United States will be a full participant.

The official said he expects senior U.S. and Iranian diplomats to be together at multi-lateral meetings in the coming months on Iraq, Afghanistan and other issues. But he said the administration's ultimate aim is a direct bilateral discussion with an Iranian interlocutor who speaks authoritatively on the country's nuclear program and other issues.