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Obama's cautious reaction to Iran

By Jonathan Beale
BBC News, Washington

It took President Obama until Monday evening to respond publicly to the outcome of the Iranian election.

Barack Obama
Mr Obama has been attempting to engage with the Iranian government

Fair enough, given the initial confusion and the sensitivity of the issue.

When he did break his silence, his words suggested he was walking a fine diplomatic line.

The president said he was "deeply troubled" by the images he - and millions of Americans - had been watching on television during the last few days.

And he called on Iran's leaders to respect the "universal values" of the democratic process.

But he studiously avoided any comment on the allegations of vote fraud, saying only that the United States had no observers watching the election close up.

The Iranian government had promised an investigation, and the president said he hoped it would be done fairly and without any further violence.

Rush to judgement

The first official US reaction had come on Saturday afternoon with a rather anodyne White House statement: "Like the rest of the world, we were impressed by the vigorous debate and enthusiasm that the election generated. We continue to monitor the entire situation closely, including reports of irregularities."

Mr Obama's reticence may have in fact strengthened the hand of the reformers and improved the chances of fundamental change

By Sunday morning, Vice-President Joe Biden was a bit more forceful, stating on national television that there appeared to be "some real doubt" about the results. His remarks came long after Tehran had erupted with protests and bitter recriminations, however.

On Monday afternoon, the state department spokesman went a little further saying that the administration was "deeply troubled" by "reports" of violence and voting irregularities.

Why they were just "reports" of violence seems curious, since by now we had all seen the images of Iranian police beating protesters.

In some ways, the Obama administration's view of Iran's presidential election seems as opaque as that of the regime in Tehran itself.

There are, of course, good reasons not to rush to judgement.

Caution

We all remember the fatal mistake the Bush administration made in 2002 declaring that Hugo Chavez had been ousted from power.

It was both wrong and counter-productive - fuelling anti-American sentiment.

But at least it was clear which side the Bush administration was on.

Four years ago, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power, the Bush administration had denounced the election even before the result was declared. They knew it was rigged by the Guardian Council, acting on the orders of the supreme leader.

This election was fundamentally no different. It was never going to be free and fair.

So why has President Obama been so cautious?

First, he wants to get US-Iranian relations out of a deep rut.

Criticising the country's elections in advance could only have helped the hard-liners and hinder the reformers.

It would have reinforced the old perceptions of US interference and made future talks all the harder.

Mr Obama's reticence may have in fact strengthened the hand of the reformers and improved the chances of fundamental change.

Realism

The other reason why the White House has been careful is that it will still have to work with whoever wins. "Deal with the leader you have, not the one you wish you had," appears to be the administration's position.

Team Obama's foreign policy "realists" have learned from the mistakes of the Bush-era "ideologues". They realised the flaws - and at times the hypocrisy - of President Bush's policy of trying to reward countries that adopted US-style democracy.

As the Washington Post has noted, the muted response from the Obama administration reflects a diplomatic dilemma.

President Obama's comments about what has happened may have an impact on the kind of dialogue he has with Tehran and therefore the chances of any diplomatic success on the key issue of Iran's nuclear programme.

To be clear, it does not rule out a dialogue. Washington has relations with plenty of unsavoury regimes.

Barack Obama's refusal to condemn the elections before they took place, and caution in responding to the results may still prove to be wise.

But is it a triumph of pragmatism over principle?

The charge levelled against President Bush was that he was too simplistic, that there was no nuance in his foreign policy, that he only saw the world in black and white.

But if he were in charge now, we would at least know his verdict on these elections.



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