Iran's crackdown complicates Obama's push for direct talks

McClatchy NewspapersJune 26, 2009 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama acknowledged Friday that his hopes for a direct U.S.-Iran dialogue, one of his signature foreign policy initiatives, have been dashed for now by the Iranian government's violent quashing of protests over the disputed June 12 election.

Obama's proposed direct outreach to Iran dates back to the 2008 presidential campaign, and even last week, well after Iranian police began to beating and shooting at mostly young protesters, the president and his aides insisted that engagement was still possible.

On Friday, however, Obama said there was "no doubt that any direct dialogue or diplomacy with Iran is going to be affected by the events of the last several weeks."

Nevertheless, Obama said that Washington will continue to take part in multi-nation talks with Tehran over its suspected nuclear weapons program "because the clock is ticking," a reference to the possibility that Iran in the coming years will acquire enough fuel to build a nuclear weapon. That's the approach President George W. Bush adopted during his last six month in office.

Rather than a respectful dialogue, Obama has found himself in a long-range war of words with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Ahmadinejad, whose claim to a landslide re-election brought on the crisis, Thursday compared Obama to Bush and demanded an apology for Obama's criticism of the regime's suppression of dissent.

Obama dismissed the demand at a news conference with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "I would suggest that Mr. Ahmadinejad think carefully about the obligations he owes to his own people. And he might want to consider looking at the families of those who have been beaten or shot or detained," he said.

The stunning events in Iran, the biggest upheaval since the Islamic revolution 30 years ago, have forced the White House to revisit its approach to other Middle East hot spots, as well.

Obama has accelerated efforts to engage Syria, Iran's closest Arab ally, by announcing plans to return a U.S. ambassador to Damascus, and he's forging ahead with plans to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The situation is complicated by the fact that no one knows how the struggle in Iran will play out, U.S. officials and analysts said.

While the Iranian regime seems to have succeeded suppressing the street protests, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may be seriously weakened, and an internecine battle could be under way among the country's ruling elite.

"All talk of engagement should be put on hold indefinitely. . . . We would demoralize the opposition and the people on the streets by prematurely acknowledging what many people in Iran believe to be an illegitimate government," said Karim Sadjadpour, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"In the next weeks and months, we will certainly have to reconsider our policy, but for now I think we shouldn't even be mentioning the word 'engagement'," he said.

A theory gaining currency among current and former U.S. officials is that Iran's leaders underestimated rising popular discontent in the country, especially among Iran's educated urban classes, until shortly before the June 12 election — and then overreacted to the threat by rigging the vote so much that the results weren't credible.

Three U.S. officials, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk to the media, said the regime was caught off-guard a second time by the vehemence and size of the post-election protests and overreacted again by turning the Basij militia loose to beat and in some cases kill protesters.

"It appears that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei didn't see this coming, probably in part because the people who turned out to vote and then took to the streets aren't their people," one official said. "They'd been quite successful at co-opting the working class, the rural population and the lower middle class with economic pay-offs, but they weren't paying attention to other elements of Iranian society."

"This is exactly how regimes go down. They overstep, they panic," said Wayne White, a former top State Department intelligence official dealing with the Middle East.

Supreme leader Khamenei, White said, easily could've allowed Mousavi to win and then blocked him from carrying out even limited reforms, as happened to former President Mohammed Khatami. Instead, "it was their first faked election, and they bumbled all over it," White said.

Obama has reached out to Iran several times since taking office. A week after he was sworn in, he told the al Arabiya television network that "if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their first, they will find an extended hand from us."

In March, he videotaped an unprecedented message to Iran's people and government for the Nowruz new year's holiday.

This week, however, he toughened his rhetoric. The State Department rescinded an invitation to Iranian diplomats to attend July Fourth celebrations at U.S. embassies worldwide.

While an eventual U.S. dialogue with Iran is a possibility, so are more sanctions.

"We're all in a phase where we're reassessing," said a European diplomat, who requested anonymity to speak more frankly.

(Margaret Talev and John Walcott contributed to this article.)

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