The re-election of Iran's hard-line president amid charges of ballot fraud has put the Obama administration in a tougher spot as it tries to draw theocratic Tehran into nuclear diplomacy without appearing to accept suppression of dissent.
Vice President Joe Biden said Sunday that efforts to engage Tehran, with the central goal of stopping it from getting nuclear weapons, will continue. But the disputed election outcome and the official crackdown on opposition protests appears to be a major setback, at least in the short run, for the new U.S. administration, which has made engagement with Iran one of its signature foreign policies.
Obama already is under renewed political pressure at home to stiffen U.S. policy.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut independent, said Sunday that the Iranian rulers had stolen the election and made a mockery of democracy. He urged Obama to "protest" and to speak out in defense of silenced Iranian demonstrators, but he offered no concrete steps to strengthen the U.S. case.
Biden made clear that the administration, while uncertain of the implications of the announced electoral victory of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over his reformist opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, has no intention of abandoning its Iran policy. Obama has put Iran at the center of his policy of extending an open hand to adversaries; the Iranians so far have responded mainly with silence.
The administration is trying to understand whether Friday's vote accurately reflected Iranians' response to Obama's effort to end the nearly 30-year diplomatic estrangement from the Islamic Republic, Biden said during an interview on NBC television's "Meet the Press."
"That's the question," Biden said, adding: "Is this the result of the Iranian people's wishes? The hope is that the Iranian people, all their votes have been counted, they've been counted fairly. But look, we just don't know enough" since the voting.
Doubts about results
While Ahmadinejad insisted the results showing his landslide victory were fair and legitimate, Biden simply said, "You know I have doubts."
For the time being, Biden said, the U.S. accepts the election's announced outcome, although questions about its legitimacy were raised by many other governments.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said his country is "very worried" about the situation in Iran and he criticized the Iranian authorities' "somewhat brutal reaction" to the street protests in Tehran.
German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said the "course of the election in Iran raises many questions." He called on Iranian authorities to explain what happened.
Two important U.S. allies — Afghanistan and Pakistan, both neighbors of Iran — offered official congratulations to Ahmadinejad for his re-election. Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, told him the victory was "an acknowledgment of your outstanding services."
Ahmadinejad dismissed the street protests — the worst unrest in a decade in Tehran — as "not important." He said Friday's vote was "real and free" and insisted the results showing his landslide victory were fair and legitimate.
Clerics have the real power
The election was widely seen as an important event, but it held out little prospect of bringing substantial change in Iranian foreign policy.
The president is Iran's political face to the world, but the clerics and their military wing known as the Revolutionary Guard are the real masters of the country's destiny. They dictate every important policy and decide who is allowed to run for elected office.
"We should be very careful about overreacting to the Iranian election," said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has been a close observer of the Iranian scene for decades.
He said he believes Obama's advisers know the limits of change in Tehran as long as the country is ruled by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his supporting case of theocrats.
"They realize that it is the supreme leader and those around him who shape any movement in terms of U.S.-Iranian relations," Cordesman said. "This was going to be true regardless of who was elected as Iranian president. I don't think anyone expected that in an election where four candidates were allowed to run — who all had to conform to the control of the supreme leader — the outcome was going to produce dramatic changes in Iran's nuclear posture or its relations with other states in the region."
Among the complexities with Iran is its ties to Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of U.S. and allied troops are fighting a resilient insurgency and pouring enormous effort into helping establish a stable government. The U.S. has doubts about Iran's assertions of wanting to play a helpful role there, accusing Tehran of supplying arms and other military capabilities to Taliban fighters.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters on Friday in Belgium that Iran is playing a "double game" in Afghanistan — professing good intentions while quietly undermining security.
Gates's press secretary, Geoff Morrell, said in a telephone interview Sunday that Gates was told by U.S. commanders as recently as last week of a "pretty consistent flow" of improvised explosive devices and other Iranian weaponry into Afghanistan, although he said it has been relatively modest in numbers.
Iran also is a critical factor in a range of other issues of central importance to the United States, including international terrorism, energy security, the campaign to stabilize Iraq and the push for a wider Arab-Israeli peace.
Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Sunday that this probably means Obama will continue his outreach policy.
"Once the dust settles the United States will eventually have no choice but to talk to Tehran, but it will likely be a cold, hard-nosed dialogue rather than friendly greetings," Sadjadpour said.