Iran's presidential election, widely suspected of being rife with fraud, presents President Obama and the West with both challenges and opportunities in their efforts to engage and moderate America's longtime enemy.
Senior Obama administration officials have been conspicuously cautious in their criticism of the election results, suggesting that, for the time being, the US remains committed to reaching out to Iran, no matter who is president. But the past few days could complicate matters.
The US will not want to look too eager to essentially endorse a regime that might have significantly tampered with votes, and then sent riot squads onto the streets to cow the protesters who dared question the results. Opposition leaders have been arrested and the opposition's newspaper shuttered – events that reelected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad deemed "not important."
Administration officials registered their concern about the legitimacy of the tally. Noting the way that the regime has suppressed free speech after the results were announced, Vice President Joe Biden said Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press that there was "some real doubt."
But he spoke in measured words. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton did the same Saturday, saying: "The United States has refrained from commenting on the election in Iran. We obviously hope that the outcome reflects the genuine will and desire of the Iranian people."
Any potentially harsher statements would only come after an attempt to verify the claims of fraud – a difficult task, given that Iran does not allow international election monitors, Mr. Biden said. But international journalists have noted with suspicion that, according to early results, Mr. Ahmadinejad led in polls across the country – even in the cities, which are generally more liberal.
Still, this weekend is not likely to change Mr. Obama's diplomatic calculus – yet.
US "talks with Iran are not a reward for good behavior," Biden said. Instead, they are what is "in the best interests of the US," he added, noting that US goals in Iran are the same now as they were before the election: preventing Iran from developing a nuclear-weapons program and ending its support for terrorists.
The White House was heartened by Iranians' interest in the election. Spokesman Robert Gibbs said Saturday that the administration was "impressed by the vigorous debate and enthusiasm that this election generated, particularly among young Iranians."
The administration hopes that many of these Iranians were motivated by Obama's recent speech in Cairo, in which he sought to reach out to the Muslim world.
Indeed, having denounced the Bush-era doctrine of regime change, young Iranians continue to be Obama's greatest hope for reform within Iran. Their full-blooded support for Mir Hossein Mousavi – a less anti-Western candidate than Ahmadinejad – could be a building block for future Iran policy. That support suggests that Obama might be able to woo Iran's youth as allies against Ahmadinejad's conservative forces.