Will ‘Changed’ Iran Complicate US Engagement?

As uncertainty persists about the results of the Iranian election last Friday, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama remains quiet on just exactly what the next tack will be on engaging the Islamic Republic, which experts say is entering a new and unknown period in its history.

Because incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who won the poll amid allegations of fraudulent results, his principal challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei all publicly support a peaceful Iranian nuclear program, the stance of the Iranian government was never likely to change much on the issue – a crucial one to the West – irrespective of who won the election.

Obama had hoped to engage the government of the winner 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 the election 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 Mousavi’s supporters are met, another election or a run-off based on reduced numbers for Ahmadinejad could be an embarrassment for Khamenei, who quickly endorsed the questioned election results 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 and, as of Tuesday, spoke out against the violence used on apparently non-violent protestors by the government and its paramilitary supporters, but has not explicitly called the elections fraudulent or offered support to Mousavi and his followers.

"I have deep concerns about the election," Obama said in an interview on Tuesday. "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, more than 30 whom have reportedly been killed both in street protests and raids on student dormitories, according to Iranian human rights groups.

(Official state news in Iran confirms seven deaths when members of the hardliner paramilitary Basij group opened fire on protesters during massive demonstrations on Jun. 15 disputing the election results.)

But many with substantial experience dealing with Iran issues say that Obama has taken an appropriately cautious position by expressing concern about violence against street protestors and election fraud, but has reiterated 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 conference on the nuclear issue and Iranian elections sponsored by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) on Capitol Hill Wednesday. "He’s expressed some concern about what’s happening on the street, (but says) it’s Iran’s fight."

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

"Now, 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 in his Tuesday interview, alluding to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-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 only by suggestion without evidence, the Journal does make a salient point: that a transfer of power in Iran would have taken substantially longer than if Ahmadinejad stays in office. An incoming president would not take his post until August, followed by a period of time needed to appoint ministers and 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, was a "worst case scenario" that not a lot of people had considered.

With regards to domestic political considerations, Obama may also run into problems if Ahmadinejad survives the challenge and retains the presidency. With the elections widely viewed by the West as completely fraudulent, Obama will need to explain his engagement carefully to fellow politicians in Congress and 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 different uncharted path, one even less predictable than the circumstances around the current outreach, where 30 years of isolation and hostility ensure that neither party knows or is comfortable with the other.

On the NIAC panel, Majd said that people are not marching for a revolution against the system, and Khamenei was a survivor. But he also said that the "Khamenei era is over."

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

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

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

"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 was ready for the change, and how he will deal with it, remains to be seen.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib writes for Inter Press Service.