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Treading Carefully on Iran

Authors: Greg Bruno, and Robert McMahon, Editor
June 24, 2009

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U.S. President Barack Obama's condemnation of the Iranian regime's crackdown on civilians protesting the presidential election marked his strongest words on the crisis since it unfolded more than ten days ago. They also prompted immediate speculation about a slowdown of the Obama administration's stated plans to engage Iran on ending its uranium-enrichment program. During a press conference in Washington on Tuesday, the president offered few clues about his administration's future tack with the Islamic Republic: "We are going to monitor and see how this plays itself out before we make any judgments about how we proceed," Obama said. But speculation of an altered strategy, or at the very least a diplomatic delay, abounds.

A Wall Street Journal news analysis speculates that Obama's comments about Iran could signal "the beginning of a significant shift in the White House's broader Middle East strategy" in dealing with the regime. Carnegie Endowment Senior Associate Robert Kagan, writing in the Washington Post, said the Obama statement on June 23 was "terrific" and called for a summit of U.S. and European leaders so that leading democracies can jointly "offer support for the opposition" and "persuade the regime in Tehran to cease its violent crackdown." On the nuclear issue specifically, some Iran experts see no choice for Washington but to scale back its diplomatic ambitions. "I think that under these circumstances, no one is going to be able to pursue anything because there is nothing to pursue," Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, told the New York Times.

A number of Iran analysts believe that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose contested election to a second term touched off the crisis, would place President Obama on the defensive if he announced a desire to restart negotiations on the nuclear front. In such a scenario, the U.S. president could face a choice between seemingly legitimizing a controversial president or turning his back on a campaign promise to pursue talks. CFR's Elliot Abrams, who served as former President George W. Bush's top Middle East adviser, told the Wall Street Journal that "the White House needs to be very, very careful not to give this government legitimacy abroad that they don't have at home." Other observers suggest that if Obama mishandles the crisis, he could appear unsure and inexperienced.

Inside Iran, the focus is less on political landmines than the potential for change. As CFR's Isobel Coleman says, reformers--and specifically advocates of women's rights--viewed the presidential election as a referendum on the ruling establishment. But regardless of how the electoral dispute is resolved, Coleman says a corner has been turned. "What has changed now, so dramatically, is that the regime has no moral authority anymore," she tells CFR.org. "In the past when women demonstrated they were labeled as Zionist spies, American stooges, and enthralled to Western secular liberalism and feminism. Those sneers no longer work. These are traditional, conservative women who are saying this is enough. They will not be stopped, and their demands won't be silenced for more justice."

Further analysis:

Reuel Marc Gerecht on the June 12 Revolution and the possibility of a military coup

Jonah Goldberg on the future of Obama's Iran policy

Robert D. Kaplan on how Iran's movement could transform the region

CFR Interviews:

Farideh Farhi on Iran's clash of titans

Karim Sadjadpour on Iran's momentous internal drama

Arang Keshavarzian on the crisis of legitimacy in Iran

CFR Backgrounders:

Iran's Revolutionary Guards

Presidential Power in Iran

Religion and Politics in Iran

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