WASHINGTON — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's highly disputed reelection victory will complicate President Barack Obama's push for better relations with the Islamic republic.
If Ahmadinejad stays in office with his legitimacy seriously compromised, experts said it could make it harder for the U.S. to trust negotiations with the regime over its nuclear program; fuel domestic pressure on Obama to take a harder line with Iran; increase tensions with Israel; and possibly affect stability in Iraq, where Iran has long been accused of supporting armed groups.
"Everything is made more complicated by this," said Gary Sick, who formerly served on the National Security Council, writes about Iran, and teaches at Columbia University.
With supporters of challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi rioting in the streets of Tehran Saturday, and critics around the world accusing the regime of rigging the returns, U.S. foreign policy experts warned it could take days or weeks for the dust to settle.
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"If they'd been a little more modest and said Ahmadinejad had won by 51 percent," Sick said, Iranians might have been dubious but more accepting. But the government's assertion that Ahmadinejad won with 62.6 percent of the vote, "is not credible."
"I think it does mark a real transition point in the Iranian Revolution, from a position of claiming to have its legitimacy based on the support of the population, to a position that has increasingly relied on repression. The voice of the people is ignored."
At the same time, experts reiterated, Iran is controlled not by its president but by its unelected supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who would have remained in power even if Mousavi had been recognized as the winner.
That's one reason the Ahmadinejad triumph need not derail U.S. efforts to improve its relationship with Tehran, said Kenneth M. Pollack, acting director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
"Ahmadinejad doesn't control Iranian foreign policy, the supreme leader does," Pollack said. "And at the end of the day if the supreme leader says, 'Sit down with the Americans,' he (Ahmadinejad) will sit down with the Americans.
"But this election and their results are an important caution to Americans and everyone else on the planet: This is not a democracy."
Obama did not directly weigh in. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs instead issued a statement saying, "Like the rest of the world, we were impressed by the vigorous debate and enthusiasm that this election generated, particularly among young Iranians. We continue to monitor the entire situation closely, including reports of irregularities."
Philip Zelikow, an adviser to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and history professor at the University of Virginia, said because of the election results, the United States needs to be careful with how it approaches Iran and shouldn't be seen as taking the side of the Ahmadinejad's opponents.
"The forces supporting Ahmadinejad will want to accuse their opponents of being foreign puppets," Zelikow said. "So our behavior needs to inoculate against that accusation. On the other hand, a lot of Iranians are going to be troubled about the apparent illegitimacy of their government."
The outcome is also likely to make it more difficult for Obama to persuade Israel to focus on a Palestinian peace deal rather than on Iran's perceived threat.
Sam Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and senior policy adviser to the Israel Policy Forum, which advocates a two-state solution, called the reelection of Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier who has frequently said Israel's days are numbered, "a disappointing outcome."
Karim Sadjadpour, an associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former chief Iran analyst for the International Crisis Group, took a pessimistic view.
He said Ahmadinejad may now represent an "insurmountable obstacle to confidence building with Iran" and that Khamenei's influence in perpetuating Ahmadinejad makes clear Khamenei is the one voice in Iran who matters.
The Obama administration, he said, "should stop this dance of looking at these elections with potentially hopeful eyes. We should go directly to the source of power, Ayatollah Khamenei, and make clear we're ready to deal with him directly."
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