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Iran election setback to US plans
By Sue Pleming
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 14 - 06 - 2009

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election victory on Friday complicates the Obama administration's engagement plans but experts said there could be no reversal of the new US policy toward Tehran.
Preliminary official results on Saturday showed hardliner Ahmadinejad had an unbeatable lead over moderate rival Mirhossein Mousavi, who claimed election irregularities.
A senior State Department official insisted the US president's decision to engage Iran was not based on any particular electoral outcome and the path ahead was hard no matter who won.
“There are a lot of different factions and mixed views on the idea of engaging the Great Satan (Washington),” said the official, speaking before the official results came out.
“We are going to engage the Iranian government whether it is led by one faction or the other,” he added. But analysts predicted a second term by Ahmadinejad would make it tougher for President Barack Obama to change the current caustic tone in US-Iranian relations while a win by former prime minister Mousavi could have helped.
“This is a significant setback for the hopes of finding an Iran which is more open to engagement,” said former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel.
“But I think it still makes sense to try to engage. Let's find out if a victorious Ahmadinejad with a significant mandate is now open to talks. Is the hard-liner better able to deliver especially after he gets a victory?,” said Riedel, now with the Brookings Institution's Saban Center. For months, Iran has stalled on responding to both Obama's personal overtures as well as an offer by major powers, including Washington, to settle disputes over its nuclear program.
“I am not sure it would have made a huge difference if Mousavi had won but I think now the election is over that the Iranian government will have very few excuses not to respond to the Obama administration,” said University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami.
The senior US official said Washington would be looking for opportunities to deal directly with Iran.
One possibility could be at a meeting of Group of Eight foreign ministers on Afghanistan and Pakistan set for Trieste, Italy, later this month where US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to attend and Iran will also be invited.
Sanctions push?
Another Ahmadinejad term could boost Washington's case for more intense sanctions against Iran if it continues to resist giving up uranium enrichment the West suspects is aimed at building an atomic bomb. Tehran argues its nuclear program is peaceful.
“Both the apparent victory and the apparent fraud greatly complicate the Obama strategy. My advice is that they had better be thinking about more sanctions,” said Elliott Abrams, a former Bush administration official now with the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Sanctions that bite might be a powerful tool and might push the regime into a serious negotiation. But it is more likely that the engagement strategy has been dealt a very heavy blow,” he added.
Mousavi had pledged to continue nuclear talks with major powers if he were president in contrast to Ahmadinejad who has ruled out such negotiations with the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany and Britain.
Middle East expert Jon Alterman said despite an Ahmadinejad victory, the Obama administration should continue pushing even for a limited dialogue with the goal of better managing tensions between the two.
“Whatever the results, Iran is in a state of political ferment. There is a sense that if the facts have not changed, the mood has changed,” said Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Regardless of who wins, the policy should be a quiet exploration of ways to build common interest and ways to stop offensive behavior,” he said.


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