Obama and the Iran Crisis Why Washington Is Playing it Safe

Barack Obama is taking a cautious approach to the disputed Iranian elections and has even said there is little difference between the candidates. The US president knows the ayatollahs wield the real power in Tehran -- and doesn't want to jeopardize negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.

By in Washington

John McCain doesn't have to display any presidential reserve. The defeated Republican candidate for the White House can rant and rave now just as he did during the campaign. Speaking on the "Today" show on the NBC network on Tuesday, McCain said that President Barack Obama "should speak out that this is a corrupt, flawed sham of an election and that the Iranian people have been deprived of their rights."

The White House, however, is being far more cautious in its approach. Three days after the disputed re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the US government is favoring soft rhetoric over tough political statements.

President Obama expressed his concerns about the protests in Tehran on Tuesday evening and said he was deeply troubled whenever he sees "violence perpetrated against people who are peacefully dissenting." He called on the Iranian leaders to respect free speech and democracy, adding this "is not how governments should interact with their people." However, he then swiftly changed tone.

The announcement by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that the election results would be re-examined indicated that the religious leader understood that the Iranian people have deep concerns about the election, he said. Furthermore, Obama argued that "the difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi, in terms of their actual policies, may not be as great as has been advertised." Either way, the US would be dealing with a regime "that has historically been hostile to the United States."

And Obama noted that history had shown that it was not productive when Washington was seen to be "meddling." It's a revealing comment and one that reflects the White House's complicated thought processes.

Obama does not want to give the impression that his administration is interfering in a foreign country's elections and power struggles. Particularly in Iran, where the memories of the US involvement in the toppling of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953 and the subsequent return of the shah is fresh in people's minds.

The US had avoided making any comments during the Iranian election campaign. Admittedly Vice President Joe Biden voiced some cautious doubts about the election results. "We don't have all the details," Biden said. "It sure looks like the way they're suppressing speech, the way they're suppressing the crowds, the way in which people are being treated, there's some real doubt about that." However, he did not speak openly about election fraud.

The Obama administration knows that if Ahmadinejad remains in office, then it will have to work with him in its pursuit of negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. Accusing him of involvement in an election fraud conspiracy would only make this dialogue much more difficult and could also serve in Iran as propaganda against the US.

Washington also knows that it is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who wields the greatest influence in Iran. Obama's advisers "realize that it is the supreme leader and those around him who shape any movement in terms of US-Iranian relations … regardless of who was elected as Iranian president," Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the Associated Press.

In other words: In the conflict with Iran, the question of who is president is ultimately not decisive. Additionally, the US administration is still unsure what it should make of the accusations of electoral fraud. According to the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, initial assessments by the intelligence community suggest that Ahmadinejad and the ayatollah may have cheated -- but the incumbent might actually have won the vote nevertheless.

Flynt Leverett from the think tank New America Foundation, who is considered one of the foremost Iran experts in Washington, told SPIEGEL ONLINE immediately after the election that support for Ahmadinejad's main challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi had been "overstated" in the West. Even if there were major irregularities in the election, not to recognize Ahmadinejad's victory could cause the conflict with Iran to escalate dangerously, Leverett believes -- even to the extent of a military confrontation.

In Washington the implications of the current escalation in Tehran for Obama and his closely watched Cairo speech to the Islamic world are now being discussed. Ahmadinejad's apparent triumph at first looked like a setback for the US president. Critics who regard Obama's outreach to Iran as politically naïve felt vindicated. Leverett for one called such public diplomacy "a waste of time." "What is going to matter is the substance of your policy," he said. "If you don't put substantial offers on the table, all the nice speeches of the president won't change anything."

But the images of demonstrations coming from Tehran could also provide support for the White House's approach, suggesting that the president, with his offer of a new dialogue, has directly reached ordinary people -- including Tehran's active bloggers, who are thought to number up to 100,000. They seem to sense that the regime's support for Ahmadinejad may have its limits if the protests continue for much longer. "The stormy Iranian elections are one more sign of how the world has been shaken up in the age of Barack Obama," writes Ignatius in the Washington Post.

The opposition in Iran is organizing online, communicating via the social networking platform Facebook and the text-messaging site Twitter. In this regard, the US government did intervene to a certain extent. The US State Department officially confirmed Tuesday that it had asked Twitter over the weekend to postpone scheduled maintenance work that would have disrupted daytime access in Iran. "We highlighted to them that this was an important form of communication," a State Department official told reporters. The management of the micro-blogging site agreed to the request and delayed the work until it was after midnight in Iran.

On the Iran question, Obama himself has experienced the extent to which political culture has been changed by the new media. The Washington Post gleefully commented on the "online silence" of the otherwise highly interactive government. For a long time, there was nothing on the White House blog about the situation in Iran. Instead, there was, among other things, an entry about jazz concerts organized by first lady Michelle Obama.

The blog does not allow comments, but citizens were quick to post protests on the White House's Facebook page. One user identifying himself as "Andy" commented: "There is a true democratic revolution occurring as we speak in Iran... and you post about jazz? Show some leadership. I am appalled and dismayed at your silence. This is not the 'change' I voted for!"


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