The political unrest in Iran presents the Obama administration with a dilemma: keep quiet to pursue a nuclear deal with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, or heed calls to respond more supportively to the protesters there — and risk alienating the Shiite cleric.
President Obama and his advisers have struggled to strike the right tone, carefully calibrating positive messages about the protests in an effort to avoid giving the government in Tehran an excuse to portray the demonstrators as pro-American. Nevertheless, the Iranian Foreign Ministry yesterday summoned the Swiss ambassador, who represents American interests in Tehran, to complain of "interventionist" comments by U.S. officials, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
In an apt summation of the administration's position, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters yesterday: "We are obviously waiting to see the outcome of the internal Iranian processes, but our intent is to pursue whatever opportunities might exist in the future with Iran."
The administration's stance is practical — the real power in Iran rests with Khamenei, not with whoever is president — but pressure for a shift in policy will mount if the protests continue to grow and begin to threaten the government's hold on power. Obama already has been criticized — notably by his Republican presidential rival, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) — as abandoning "fundamental principles" of support for human rights.
Khamenei, a former president of Iran who became supreme leader 20 years ago after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, plays a defining behind-the-scenes role in Iran's complex and often opaque political system. His power derives from his support among the armed forces and the clerical establishment that presides over the nation's quasi-theocracy.
Few experts doubt Khamenei would have approved of manipulating election results to ensure President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's reelection or could have the influence to order a new vote, though it is unclear whether recent events have threatened his grip on power internally. If he remains in control, Khamenei's views would be expected to prevail on any key decisions affecting the future of the Islamic republic, especially on the question of whether to deal with the Obama administration.
Mohsen Milani, chairman of the international relations department at the University of South Florida, said it appears that an internal power struggle among the governing elites has burst into the open, combined with images of public discontent. "President Obama has made one very important decision," he said. "He has not taken a position on the internal struggle."
One of Obama's signature pledges during last year's campaign was to reach out to the Islamic republic and seek to end three decades of estrangement between the two countries. A central objective is to dissuade Iran from attempts to build a nuclear weapon, a development that Western nations argue would destabilize the Middle East. Iran maintains that its nuclear program is purely for civilian uses.
With a televised Persian New Year's greeting to Iran's leaders in March, Obama effectively recognized the current ruling structure and took regime change out of the equation. Administration officials had planned to seek a dialogue, preferably with officials close to Khamenei, after Iran's presidential vote.
Now those ambitions are on hold, awaiting the outcome of the disputed election. But Obama has made clear that he assumes the results, for now, will not change his approach to the nation.
"Although there is amazing ferment taking place in Iran, the difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual positions may not be as great as has been advertised," Obama told CNBC on Tuesday. "We've got long-term interests in having them not weaponize nuclear power and stop funding organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas. And that would be true whoever came out on top in this election."
Obama's statement has struck some commentators as insulting to the huge demonstrations in support of challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi. McCain, appearing on CNN yesterday, said he was "frankly incredulous" about Obama's comment. "To say there's not a bit of difference between the two candidates is beside the point," he said. "The Iranian people, obviously, think there's some difference, or tens or hundreds of thousands of them wouldn't be in the streets."
But Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, said of Obama's remark: "It is coldblooded, but it is also hard-headed. It is important not to get romantic about the idea of an Iranian moderate."
A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to explain the administration's thinking, said U.S. officials want to "keep faith" with the demonstrators, letting the government know "the world is watching," to avoid a bloody denouement. But he said the odds are slim that Khamenei will somehow lose power. "We can't lose sight of the fact that they are enriching uranium every day," he said. "They were a threat before the election. They are a threat today, and the clock keeps ticking."
Too much overt U.S. support for the demonstrators, he said, may feed Iranian suspicions about a U.S. desire for regime change and make Iran's leaders less likely to agree to restraints on the nuclear program. "It is easy to say you ought to talk tough," the official said. "But before you do that, you have to ask yourself: What is the effect of having done that? Will it change their behavior or not?"
Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, said she has no complaints about Obama's rhetoric. "What happens in Iran regards the people themselves, and it is up to them to make their voices heard," she said in a telephone interview from Geneva. "I respect his comments on all the events in Iran, but I think it is sufficient."