Vice President Joe Biden, 14 June 2009: "Our interests are the same before the election as after the election"
Two days after the disputed Presidential election, EA's Chris Emery --- now a faculty member at the London School of Economics --- offered this analysis in The Guardian. How much of his assessment of Washington's approach holds up today?
In contrast to the drama unfolding on the streets of Iran, the key non-event outside the country is the lack of reaction from the Obama administration. Contrary to the position taken by the Bush administration in cases from the Ukraine to Georgia and Lebanon, there will be no welcoming or encouraging of a velvet revolution in Iran. The Obama administration is, instead, preparing itself to deal with whoever emerges as president. Despite the protestations of Mir-Hossein Mousavi's supporters, this will almost certainly be the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While the United States would have strongly preferred to be dealing with a Mousavi administration, the basic strategic and political rationale for US-Iranian rapprochement remains unchanged.
Washington has sensibly avoided directly challenging the validity of an election widely considered by analysts to be seriously flawed. To do otherwise would simply damage the Iranian reform movement further and allow hardliners to once again portray the United States as undermining Iranian sovereignty. US officials have thus adopted a wait-and-see attitude without either congratulating or directly criticising Ahmadinejad's victory.
Iranian law requires a three-day waiting period before the result is officially verified. This established a useful political space for Washington to avoid any detailed response as it is gets to grips with the prospect of another four-year Ahmadinejad administration. Secretary of state Hillary Clinton thus simply stated yesterday: "We, like the rest of the world, are waiting and watching to see what the Iranian people decide."
There are undeniable difficulties now facing Obama's policy in Iran. The principal effect will be the strengthening of hardline domestic opposition to US engagement. Former Bush official Elliott Abrams was quick to put a dampener on this prospect, stating that it is "likely that the engagement strategy has been dealt a very heavy blow".
The Obama administration, which has in recent times sought to roll back Israeli influence on US policy in Iran, will also face increased pressure from the government in Tel Aviv and its supporters in America. The Israeli deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, immediately noted the futility of negotiating with any Iranian government led by President Ahmadinejad. He told reporters: "With the results of the election in Iran, the international community must stop a nuclear Iran and Iranian terror immediately. If there was a shadow of hope for change in Iran, the renewed choice of Ahmadinejad expresses more than anything the growing Iranian threat."
On the immediate issue of the linkage between Iran and Israel, Obama will undoubtedly hold the line against an Iran-first approach. There may now, however, be a greater political price for Obama in doing so. The question is whether this cost will jeopardise the prospect of US-Iranian engagement.
Many neocons in America and hardliners in Israel will ironically breathe a sigh of relief that their bogeyman remains in power in Tehran. Some were previously open in expressing their hopes that Ahmadinejad, who is an easily identifiable threat, would not be removed from power. These hardliners had greatly feared that a Mousavi victory would simply result in the evaporation of any political will, especially in Europe, to confront Iran's nuclear activities or support for groups hostile to Israel. Mousavi, they argued with some validity, did not fundamentally propose changing Iran's position on these issues.
There seems little doubt that opponents of US engagement with Iran would have been pushed on the defensive by a Mousavi victory, no more so than on the issue of Iran's nuclear programme. There seems no realistic scenario which doesn't require America living with Iran being able to enrich uranium sometime in the near future. Preparing the US public for this reality is an inevitable hurdle President Obama will likely have to overcome. Despite there being little evidence that Mousavi would have been able to offer any substantial concessions on this issue, he would have made this realisation slightly more palatable for Americans. It now seems possible that Ahmadinejad's re-election will strengthen Congressional opposition on this subject. It may also make lawmakers less inclined to provide Tehran incentives, in the form of ending sanctions, for any moderation to its policies.
What needs to occur between Iran and the West, and particularly in the United States, is a series of confidence-building measures. Clearly, the last four years have indicated that Ahmadinejad is much less suited than Obama in generating this confidence. The Iranian president is perceived by many as "damaged goods" for his provocative rhetoric on Israel and has shown a very limited interest in improving his political credibility in the west.
Yet, despite the obvious sense of disappointment in the west, there are some indications that the Obama administration may be able to capitalise on some of the political implications of Ahmadinejad's victory. As is often noted, government and the state are not the same in Iran. Events in Iran, and indeed Washington, may well continue to effect a change of attitude in the heart of Iran's political establishment. If the Supreme Leader has already decided to cautiously pursue rapprochement with the Obama administration – and several commentators believe he has – he will receive the support of President Ahmadinejad. Clearly, the Iranian president is not the ideal candidate for extending dialogue, yet his alienation could still turn out to be his virtue. The very hostility of his previous rhetoric on America could elevate the symbolic value of any future conciliatory gestures. Should Ahmadinejad respond magnanimously to any future US overtures, it would portend a much more profound shift in attitude within a section of Iran's political system often assumed to be implacably hostile.
Although some may see the result of these elections as a rejection of Obama's overtures towards Iran, this is almost certainly not the case. Allegations of vote-rigging aside, it seems accurate to say that domestic issues were more significant in this election. Iran's foreign policy and particularly its damaged relationship with the US was, however, a hotly debated issue. None of the four candidates stood on a platform that rejected an ongoing constructive dialogue with the Obama administration. Despite the election of a candidate less suited to conducting this dialogue, there remains a broadly popular appetite to end Iran's international isolation, and repair its relations with America.
Positive movement on engagement with the United States could thus be an effective means by which Iran's political establishment defuses public anger following the disputed election. The issue seems ideally suited to demonstrating that those who yearn for change should not necessarily be disappointed, even if change in political reform will still be resisted. In doing so, the Supreme Leader will be able to take the credit for any rapprochement, while asserting his overall authority on Iran's decision making process.
The West may thus grimace at the prospect of having to deal with Ahmadinejad's stubborn and provocative style for another four years. Yet, there has not been a seismic shift in the geo-political or political landscape: the foreign policy differences between all four candidates were much more about style than substance.
The priorities of the Obama administration are also still the same. Resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict means Iran cannot be pushed to the forefront as the immediate challenge. And in the longer term, the demands on the US from Afghanistan and Central Asia to relations with the wider Islamic world still mean that engagement is the preferred alternative. Irrespective of the outcome of the presidential election in Iran, there is no reason to suggest these will not be potentially effective strategies.