The political unrest in Iran presents the Obama administration with a dilemma: keep quiet in order to pursue a nuclear deal with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, or heed the calls to respond more supportively to the protesters in Iran's cities - and risk alienating the Shiite cleric.
President Obama and his advisers have struggled to strike the right tone, carefully calibrating positive messages about the protests in an effort to avoid giving the government in Tehran the excuse to portray the demonstrators as pro-American. Nevertheless, the Iranian Foreign Ministry on Wednesday summoned the Swiss ambassador, who represents American interests in Tehran, to complain of "interventionist" comments by U.S. officials, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
In an apt summing up of the administration's position, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters: "We are obviously waiting to see the outcome of the internal Iranian processes, but our intent is to pursue whatever opportunities might exist in the future with Iran."
The administration's stance is practical - the real power in Iran rests with Khamenei, not with whoever is president - but pressure will grow for a shift in policy if the protests continue to grow and begin to threaten the government's hold on power. Already the president has come under fire - notably from his Republican presidential rival, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. - for abandoning "fundamental principles" of support for human rights.
Khamenei, a former president of Iran who became supreme leader 20 years ago after the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, plays a defining behind-the-scenes role in Iran's complex and often opaque political system. His power derives from his support among the armed forces and the clerical establishment that presides over Iran's quasi-theocracy.
Few experts doubt Khamenei would have approved of manipulating the election results to ensure President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's reelection or could have the influence to order a new vote, though it is unclear if his grip on power internally has been threatened by the recent events. If he remains in control, Khamenei's views would be expected to prevail on any key decisions affecting the future of the Islamic Republic, especially on the question of whether to deal with the Obama administration.
Mohsen Milani, chair of international relations department at the University of South Florida, said it appears an internal power struggle among the governing elites has burst out in the open, combined with images of public discontent. "President Obama has made one very important decision," he said. "He has not taken a position on the internal struggle."
One of Obama's signature pledges during last year's campaign was to reach out to the Islamic Republic and seek to end the three decades of estrangement between the two countries. A central objective is dissuading the country from attempts to build a nuclear weapon, a development that Western nations argue would destabilize the Middle East. Iran maintains that its nuclear program is purely for civilian uses.
With a televised Persian New Year's greeting to Iran's leaders in March, the president effectively recognized the current ruling structure and took regime change out of the equation. Administration officials had planned to seek a dialogue, preferably with officials close to Khamenei, after Iran's presidential vote.
Now, those ambitions are on hold, awaiting the outcome of the disputed election. But the president has made clear he assumes the results, for now, will not change his approach to Iran.
"Although there is amazing ferment taking place in Iran, the difference between Ahmadinejad and (challenger Mir Hossein) Mousavi in terms of their actual positions may not be as great as has been advertised," Obama told CNBC on Tuesday. "We've got long-term interests in having them not weaponize nuclear power and stop funding organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas. And that would be true whoever came out on top in this election."
Obama's statement has struck some commentators as insulting to the huge demonstrations in support of Mousavi. McCain, appearing on CNN Wednesday, said he was "frankly incredulous" at Obama's comments. "To say there's not a bit of difference between the two candidates is beside the point," he said. "The Iranian people, obviously, think there's some difference, or tens or hundreds of thousands of them wouldn't be in the streets."
But Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, said of Obama's comments: "It is cold-blooded but it is also hard-headed. It is important not to get romantic about the idea of an Iranian moderate."
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to explain the administration's thinking, said U.S. officials want to "keep faith" with the demonstrators, letting the government know "the world is watching," in order to avoid a bloody denouement. But he said the odds were slim that Khamenei would somehow lose his grip on power. "We can't lose sight of the fact that they are enriching uranium every day," he said. "They were a threat before the election. They are a threat today, and the clock keeps ticking."
Too much overt U.S. support for the demonstrators, he said, might feed Iranian suspicions about a U.S. desire for regime change and make Iran's leaders less likely to agree to restraints on the nuclear program, he said. "It is easy to say you ought to talk tough," the official said. "But before you do that, you have to ask yourself, what is the effect of having done that? Will it change their behavior or not?"
Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human rights activist who won the Nobel peace prize in 2003, said she had no complaints about Obama's rhetoric. "What happens in Iran regards the people themselves and it is up to them to make their voices heard," she said in a telephone interview from Geneva. "I respect his comments on all the events in Iran but I think it is sufficient."