As protests and riots flare in Tehran and other cities in Iran after the bitter election there Friday, President Obama finds himself in a bind. The disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appears to have undermined, at least for now, Obama's fundamental argument that outreach, diplomacy, and an emphasis on democratic values can move the Mideast closer to peace and move Iran away from its nuclear program.
Obama's theory of conciliation will now be tested as never before in his young presidency. Ahmadinejad's retaining power by apparently defeating reformer Mir Hossein Mousavi solidifies the hold of radical Islamic leaders and clerics on the government in Iran. The Ahmadinejad regime may have a stronger hand to intensify its level of confrontation with the United States and Israel. Ahmadinejad has denied the Holocaust, threatened Israel with obliteration, and been severely critical of the United States.
Vice President Joe Biden spoke carefully for the administration yesterday when he expressed "doubts" about the election results. He told NBC's Meet the Press that "we're going to withhold comment" until there is more information about Mousavi's charges that the election was rigged. But he added: "There's an awful lot of question about how this election was run. I mean, we're just waiting to see."
The Obama administration doesn't want to totally alienate Ahmadinejad because the West will have to continue dealing with him over very sensitive and explosive issues, including Iran's nuclear program, the status of Israel, and the overall peace process in the Mideast. In addition, administration officials don't want to be too critical of Ahmadinejad's victory because that might make the anti-Ahmadinejad reformers seem like puppets of the United States and weaken their position internally.
"Our interests are the same before the election as after the election," Biden said, "and that is, we want them to cease and desist from seeking a nuclear weapon and having one in its possession, and, secondly, to stop supporting terror."
Echoing Biden this morning, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters, "Obviously, we continue to have concern about what we've seen. Obviously, the Iranians are looking into this, as well. We continue to be heartened by the enthusiasm of young people in Iran. But I think what's important is the concerns that we have about their nuclear weapons program. And the concern we have about their support for terror isn't any different than it was on Friday."
Referring to the massive demonstrations supporting both Mousavi and Ahmadinejad since the disputed balloting, Biden said yesterday: "The fact is that there is clearly a debate going on among Iranians about Iran. It is not about us."
One person was reportedly killed and many were wounded in the street protests in Tehran today.