The confused aftermath of Iran's presidential election is complicating the Obama administration's planned outreach to the Islamic republic and underscoring the challenges facing the president's new approach to the Middle East based on shared values and common interests.
The administration has remained as quiet as possible during the Iranian election season and in the days of street protests since Friday's vote. Incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been declared the winner over his more reform-minded opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, by a margin that opposition supporters have found impossible to believe.
As the Iranian government cracked down on public demonstrations and reportedly detained dozens of opposition leaders, Vice President Biden said yesterday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that he had "doubts" about the election returns but that "we're going to withhold comment" until a more intensive review takes place in the coming days.
"There's an awful lot of question about how this election was run," Biden said, noting that the high voter turnout in Iran's urban areas would argue against such a wide margin of victory for Ahmadinejad, whose conservative populism holds more appeal in rural areas. "I mean we're just waiting to see."
The cautious response illustrates the balance that the Obama administration is seeking between condemning what increasingly appears to be a fraudulent election and the likelihood that it will be dealing with Ahmadinejad after the dust settles.
The measured tone and approach stand in contrast to some of the Bush administration's reactions to democratic challenges abroad. For instance, that administration decided a day after the April 2002 coup toppling Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to recognize the unelected interim government, only to see the populist president back in office within days. The administration's relations with Chávez, who controls one of the largest oil reserves outside the Middle East, and with other left-leaning Latin American leaders deteriorated sharply in the ensuing years.
But the Obama administration's subdued response also reflects the peculiar nature of Iran's democracy, and what -- if any -- difference the winner of this presidential election signifies to U.S. policy interests in the region.
Iran's decisive political authority lies with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a Shiite cleric who holds the title of supreme leader. Such internationally pressing issues as Iran's nuclear program, which its leaders claim is for civilian power purposes only, fall under his purview.
But even within Iran's constrained democracy -- which Obama hailed last week for its robust debate -- Ahmadinejad held some political legitimacy for winning the 2005 presidential election. That vote was viewed at the time as fair, even though the list of candidates was culled by Iran's unelected religious leadership, as it was this time as well.
Questions surrounding Ahmadinejad's defeat of Mousavi -- who favored greater rights for women, a more moderate tone in Iran's dealings with the West, and maintaining Iran's nuclear program -- could make Obama's efforts to engage his government even more politically problematic.
Biden said yesterday that "talks with Iran are not a reward for good behavior" and indicated that negotiations should be pursued regardless of how the next few days unfold in Tehran.
"Our interests are the same before the election as after the election, and that is: We want them to cease and desist from seeking a nuclear weapon and having one in its possession, and secondly to stop supporting terror," he said.
But some Republicans, as well as Israel's government, say talks with a leader who has denied the Holocaust, threatened the Jewish state with annihilation and called Iran's nuclear program non-negotiable should be isolated. With accusations of fraud swirling around Ahmadinejad's victory, those hawkish voices are rising for Obama to change course.
Appearing yesterday on ABC's "This Week," former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) said, "What has occurred is that the election is a fraud, the results are inaccurate, and you're seeing a brutal repression of the people as they protest."
"The president ought to come out and state exactly those words, indicate that this has been a terribly managed decision by the autocratic regime in Iran," said Romney, who has not ruled out another run for president in 2012. "It's very clear that the president's policies of going around the world and apologizing for America aren't working."
In his speech to Muslim nations in Cairo this month, Obama noted that "in the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government" and recounted decades of subsequent hostility between the two countries.
"Rather than remain trapped in the past," he said, "I've made it clear to Iran's leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question now is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build."
Days later, Lebanese voters chose a coalition of pro-U.S. parties known as the "March 14 alliance" to form the next government, upsetting a movement led by the Islamist party Hezbollah.
The largely Shiite Muslim party receives large amounts of financial support from Iran, and the election outcome signaled the first pro-U.S. vote in the Middle East in years.
Whether Obama's overture to Muslims played a part in the result -- some analysts have identified higher-than-expected turnout for the March 14 alliance as a possibly decisive factor -- remains the subject of debate.
But one senior administration official said just after the Lebanese vote that Obama's Cairo speech "created leverage in a region where we were on defense" and that "the extremists now have to dance to the beat of our music."
Iran's hard-liners, at least for now, are backing another term for Ahmadinejad. How the Iranian electorate responds will probably shape the Obama administration's next steps. For now, as Biden indicated, the administration is watching.
"This was always going to be hard," said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity while the White House awaits a clearer sense of the results. "The fact is that there is clearly a debate going on among Iranians about Iran. It is not about us."