WASHINGTON – The re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered a stinging setback to the Obama administration’s hopes of cultivating a better relationship with the Islamic republic.
Although Ahmadinejad and his chief rival, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, share hard-line views on key foreign policy issues, a government that included the reformist Mousavi probably would have been more receptive to American overtures, U.S. officials and private experts said.
Now, as bitterly disputed results tout the victory of a strident leader who has called for the elimination of Israel, Congress and pro-Israel conservatives undoubtedly will press President Barack Obama to put a tight deadline on his opening to Iran. They are expected to urge him to move on to tougher measures, such as economic sanctions or military action, to try to compel Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions.
U.S. officials insisted that they would press ahead with their offer of dialogue no matter who won the election. Ahmadinejad has given mixed signals on engagement, but Iranian officials made it clear that no serious conversations could be held until the presidential campaign was concluded.
But the protests that have flared in Iran in the wake of the election also may have ramifications for any dialogue between the two countries. Bruce Riedel, a veteran U.S. intelligence official now at the Brookings Institution think tank, said if the divisions from the election lingered, Iran would be less able to begin diplomacy.
“Iran in turmoil will not be ready to engage Obama,” he said.
Because of the hostility to Ahmadinejad, it would be very difficult for any U.S. president to negotiate a deal with Iran that would entitle the country to continue with even a small uranium enrichment program, analysts said.
Some American hawks have contended that Ahmadinejad’s election would be preferable because it would clarify the issues and help keep the administration from wasting time waiting to see whether the new Iranian government would move on the U.S. proposal for negotiations.
Elliott Abrams, one of President George W. Bush’s top officials on the Middle East, wrote in commentary in the New York Times last week that the election of a reform candidate might have led the United States and its Western allies to the “delusion” that they could negotiate the end to Iran’s nuclear program, and persuaded them to make “pre-emptive concessions” to Iran.
Ahmadinejad and Mousavi have said they were committed to Iran’s right to enrich uranium. Iranians say the program is intended only for peaceful purposes, although the United States and many other world powers fear the goal is to gain nuclear weapons know-how.
Mousavi, like Ahmadinejad, also is believed to have been committed to continuing Iran’s support for the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, another top point of friction with the United States.
Yet Mousavi contended that the Iranian government’s confrontational approach to the West under Ahmadinejad had hurt the country, and said he intended to reduce those frictions.
Most key national security issues in Iran are decided not by the president, but by the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Nevertheless, the president has influence, and if Mousavi had won, he probably would have brought into the senior councils a substantial group of allies who might have moderated the government’s foreign policy approach, analysts said.