Does Obama still want to engage Iran?

The administration's cautious response to the disputed elections reflects the reality that Ahmadinejad may remain president – and Iran's nuclear policy is unlikely to change even if he doesn't.

Continuing strife in Iran over the legitimacy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's declared re-election victory has stoked debate in Washington over the wisdom of President Obama's pursuit of engagement with Tehran.

But the contested vote probably changes little with regard to Iran's nuclear program or the way Iran deals with the US because the country's true power, Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei, was not on the ballot, some experts in Iran and nonproliferation diplomacy say. Even if Mr. Khamanei interprets the elections results in a way that alters Iran's approach to the US and the international community, it may be a while before such an impact can be discerned.

"We don't know how to interpret the elections, but the key actor there [Khamenei] does," says George Perkovich, director of the nonproliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "The leader knows if the election was stolen or not, and he will interpret whether it means the public really wants engagement with the US or not."

He adds, "So a lot will depend on how he interprets these elections."

Khamenei surprised some analysts Monday by announcing that there would be an inquiry into the election results. Earlier, the supreme leader had just called on Mir Hossein Mousavi, President Ahmadinejad's principle opponent in Friday's vote, to pursue his challenge of the results through the available legal means.

Mr. Mousavi subsequently called off a protest rally in one of Tehran's main squares. But protests continued anyway, and Mousavi eventually addressed the assembled thousands. At least one demonstrator was reportedly shot and killed at the rally.

The Obama administration is so far responding cautiously to the elections, heaping praise on Iranians who went to the polls in record numbers but maintaining that US concerns about Iran are unchanged by the election results. "What's important is the concerns that we have about their nuclear weapons, and the concerns we have about their support for terror isn't any different than it was on Friday," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday.

Those words echoed comments by Vice President Joe Biden Sunday, who said on a Sunday talk show that "our interests are the same before the election as after the election."

In part, the administration's approach can be seen as a desire to avoid what in the case of the Bush administration was sometimes seen as an alacrity to intervene in disputed elections – especially when one party in the dispute was considered an adversary of the US, as is the case with Mr. Ahmadinejad.

But another explanation is the reality that the prickly and often bombastic Ahmadinejad may well end up being the Obama administration's chief Iranian interlocutor over the coming months.

"If the election really did come down the way the official results suggest, we could find ourselves with a much more confident Ahmadinejad," one convinced he could get his own way, says Carnegie's Mr. Perkovich.

The form and tone of Iran's response to Obama's overtures could potentially be different under Mr. Mousavi. But David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, notes that it was under Mousavi as prime minister that Iran launched its nuclear program in the 1990's. So Iran's characterization of the nuclear program as a nonnegotiable feature of its identity and progress might not change even if he became president.

Even Middle East analysts who support Obama's pursuit of dialogue with Iran say he should keep in mind that Iranian interests are unlikely to be drastically altered by a presidential election.

"The reality is … that any radical change in Iran's behavior requires a level of change in its internal politics and leadership that goes far beyond the outcome of any presidential election," writes Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh Burke Chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, in a commentary.

While this does not necessarily mean Iran will "pursue the same basic polices for the next decade," he adds, "no one outside Iran can prudently plan on anything else."

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