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Will “Changed” Iran Complicate U.S. Engagement?

(Inter Press Service)

As doubts persist about the results of Iran’s recent election, the Barack Obama administration remains quiet on how Iran’s crisis will affect U.S. plans to engage the Islamic Republic, which is clearly entering a new and highly uncertain period.

Because incumbent Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, his principal challenger Mir Hossein Moussavi, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei all publicly support a peaceful Iranian nuclear program, the Iranian government’s stance on that issue was  unlikely to change much—irrespective of who won the election.

Obama had hoped to engage the Iranian government on nuclear matters by the end of the year. He was reportedly planning to aim much of the diplomacy at Khamenei, who has final say on governmental matters, including foreign policy.

But the protracted wrangling over allegations of fraudulent election results is likely to complicate any effort to meaningfully engage on the issue.

The continuing massive street protests in Iran, with numbers reportedly in the hundreds of thousands, and sporadic violence have made it difficult to predict where things are headed.

If the demands of Moussavi’s supporters are met, another election or a run-off based on reduced numbers for Ahmadinejad could embarrass Khamenei, who endorsed the election results soon after their release.

Khamenei’s future as supreme leader is thought secure, but is also being gently questioned.

“People are already discussing who the next supreme leader will be,” said Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American journalist and author who just returned from an extended stay in Iran, where he was covering the run-up to the elections.

The uncertainty ahead has caused paralysis in Washington, where officials are waiting to see how the disputes shake out.

Obama has made cautious comments supporting Iranian democracy.  On June 16, the president spoke out against the violence unleashed by the government and paramilitary groups on apparently peaceful protestors, but as of June 18 he had yet to call the elections fraudulent or to offer support to Moussavi and his followers.

“I have deep concerns about the election,” Obama said in a June 16 interview. “When I see violence directed at peaceful protestors, when I see peaceful dissent being suppressed, wherever that takes place, it is of concern to me and it’s of concern to the American people.” He also said the election “is ultimately for the Iranian people to decide.”

Hawks and right-wing figures who, even as they call for military strikes against Iran, purport to champion its dissidents and their concerns, continue to encourage Obama to speak out more forcefully in favor of the protesters.

But many Iran experts say that Obama has taken an appropriately cautious position by expressing concern about violence against street protestors and election fraud, while also reiterating his intention to engage Iran irrespective of the winner.

“Obama has taken exactly the right tone,” said Brookings Institution senior fellow Suzanne Maloney at a June 17 Capitol Hill conference on Iranian elections and the nuclear issue sponsored by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). “He’s expressed some concern about what’s happening on the street, [but says] it’s Iran’s fight.”

“[Obama’s] support for Moussavi would be counterproductive,” she added, noting that the support coming from Washington’s “powerful bully pulpit” can be dangerous to politicians who don’t wish to be closely associated with the U.S. government.

“It’s not productive, given the history of the U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling—the U.S. president meddling in Iranian elections,” said Obama, alluding to the Central Intelligence Agency-orchestrated coup that overthrew a secular democratically-elected government in favor of the authoritarian Shah in 1953.

But the neoconservative editorial board of the Wall Street Journal reacted to Obama’s comments with consternation, condemning him for his caution.

The Journal even went so far as to suggest that the Obama administration was hoping for a quick settlement of Iran’s political crisis in favor of Ahmadinejad because it would speed up the resumption of his engagement plan.

Indeed, while ascribing these base calculations to Obama without evidence, the Journal does make a salient point—that had Ahmadinejad lost the election, a transfer of power in Iran would be a lengthy process. An incoming president would not take his post until August, and would then need a transition period during he would assemble the new government .

“There’s been a bit of anxiousness—not annoyance—in the White House that they can’t get on with diplomacy,” said Trita Parsi, the co-founder and president of NIAC.

Even the continued dispute over the election is likely to disrupt progress on engagement.

“If the standoff and infighting goes on, it will paralyze the Iranian system,” said Parsi, who says that won’t bode well for Obama’s plans. Paralysis, Parsi said, is a “worst case scenario” that few in the administration had considered.

Regarding domestic political considerations, Obama may also run into problems if Ahmadinejad survives the challenge and retains the presidency. With the elections widely viewed in the West as completely fraudulent, Obama will need to carefully explain his engagement to Congress and to other constituencies already highly skeptical of Iran’s intentions.

“I think Obama will have more trouble convincing the Hill” and others that the Iranians are trustworthy, if Ahmadinejad is perceived as autocratically clinging to power, said Maloney.

But in the slightly longer term, the changing face of Iran will likely take engagement down a highly unpredictable path. .

On the NIAC panel, Majd noted that although Iranian protestors are not marching for a revolution against the system, the “Khamenei era is over.”

“People are already discussing who the next supreme leader will be,” said Majd.

No one at the NIAC conference considers Khamenei’s position to be in immediate danger, but the fact that issues like this are being broached signals a rapidly evolving Islamic Republic.

Ali Akbar Mahdi, a professor at Ohio Wesleyan University, said the current crisis is causing Iranians to ask grand questions that they have yet to deeply consider.

“The theocracy has always emphasized people’s Islamic duties,” he said. “But what about their rights?”

That concept of rights—or ”haq”—is central to the Shia Islam practiced in Iran.

“Whatever the outcome” of the current election crisis, said Brookings’s Maloney, “this is a changed Islamic Republic.”

Whether Obama is ready for the change, and how he will deal with it, remains to be seen.

Ali Gharib writes for the Inter Press Service and PRA’s Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org).

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