President Obama continued dialing up his rhetoric on Iran as the regime there pursued its repression of election protests, on Friday saying for the first time that Tehran's violence against the people will affect prospects for US engagement with Iran.
"There is no doubt that any direct dialogue or diplomacy with Iran is going to be affected by the events of the last several weeks," Mr. Obama said in a midday White House press appearance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
He added, "We don't yet know how any potential dialogue will have been affected until we see what has happened inside of Iran."
His comments came after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad demanded an apology from Obama for what he said was interference in Iran's internal affairs. Mr. Ahmadinejad was proclaimed the victor in the June 12 election that thousands of protesters have concluded was rigged.
Obama's sideline strategy
The Iranian president's comments drawing Obama into the election fray is exactly the kind of excuse-making – blaming turmoil on the meddling of the Great Satan – that Obama had said he'd hoped to avoid. Obama has faced criticism from Republicans and some Democrats as he labored for nearly two weeks to keep a low profile on the elections in Iran.
But as bloodshed mounted in Tehran – and then as he stood in the White House East Room with Chancellor Merkel, the first Western leader to demand a full recount in Iran's presidential election – Obama acknowledged he could not stay on the sidelines. He did, however, reemphasize that the US had consciously shunned the limelight on the elections.
Obama said he did not "take Mr. Ahmadinejad's statements seriously about apologies, particularly given the fact that the United States has gone out of its way not to interfere with the election process in Iran."
Dialogue depends largely on Iran
How soon, or whether, a US-Iran dialogue begins will be determined more by Iran's political situation than by Obama's comments, say some experts on Iran.
"The real issue is that the dust has not settled in Iran yet. It's still unclear who is going to be governing Iran," says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) in Washington. He notes, for example, that Ahmadinejad will have to obtain parliamentary approval of a new cabinet, and it's not clear at this point if he can get it.
On the other hand, Mr. Parsi adds, "You have a ticking nuclear clock, so the [US] administration is going to have to find some way to pursue diplomacy."
Merkel reiterates: No nukes
Merkel reiterated the view of the international community that Iran must not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon – something international powers believe the Iranian regime is pursuing. Iran insists its nuclear program is solely for peaceful power generation.
Prospects for a continuing tit-for-tat between Obama and Ahmadinejad may have grown, as Obama made specific reference to Ahmadinejad's rival in the elections, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, as a leader who had "captured the imagination" of the Iranian people.
Obama, says NIAC's Parsi, did not cross any new lines in referring to Mr. Mousavi, who has called for continued resistance to the official declaration of Ahmadinejad's victory. "I think he was merely taking note of the reality on the streets as we've seen it," he says.
No doubt Iran observers will be watching to see if Ahmadinejad views it the same way.