Iran's presidential election, as marred as it has been by probable fraud and mass protests in Tehran, could ultimately be a boon to US-Iranian relations -- even if Mahmoud Ahmadinejad retains power.
This would seem counterintuitive, given the hostility that Ahmedinejad frequently expresses toward Washington, and which many in Washington are happy to reciprocate. On June 16, attending the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Yekaterinburg, Russia, he took another potshot at the United States: "Washington's many political and economic woes show that its judgment can no longer be trusted," he said.
But the trust that many Iranian hardliners have in Ahmedinejad may make it easier for him, and only him, to carry out a US-Iranian rapprochement, somewhat like how former US president Richard Nixon, a long-time red-baiter, had the anti-Communist credentials that enabled his administration to make peace with the People's Republic of China in the early 1970s. If Ahmadinejad doesn't survive Iran's post-election crisis, some in Washington are hopeful that the next leader, perhaps the aggrieved presidential challenger Mir Hussein Mousavi, would also be open to dialogue.
Despite the negative rhetoric and the continuing tension over Iran's nuclear program, there have lately been hints of a thaw between the two countries. At the same time, Iran has given no indication of responding to a feeler extended by the Obama administration for exploratory talks.
American officials have lately floated the possibility of allowing Iranian natural gas to be shipped through the Nabucco pipeline, or to transit gas from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan through Iran to Europe. That would be a significant reversal of US policy, and one much welcomed by Iran. The Iranian economy is struggling and needs new markets for its gas. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In addition, US pressure has stopped Western companies from being able to invest in Iran's natural gas infrastructure, and Iran is interested in removing those restrictions.
"These are factors that are quietly pushing the Iranians toward the United States," said Alex Vatanka, senior Middle East analyst at Jane's Information Group.
The more moderate parts of the Iranian polity are already in favor of improving relations with Washington. But with a less trusted figure as president -- like Mousavi, the losing candidate -- some hardliners in Tehran might be too skittish to support a rapprochement with the United States, Vatanka added. "If Ahmedinejad, who clearly has the support of the Supreme Leader, is in the driver's seat when it comes to negotiations with the US, that [hardliner opposition] won't happen," he said.
The White House has responded cautiously to the events in Iran. On June 13, it released 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."
By June 15, however, as street protests in Tehran grew, Obama spoke somewhat more forcefully, and hinted at his sympathy for the opposition protesters. "I think it would be wrong for me to be silent about what we've seen on the television over the last few days. And what I would say to those people who put so much hope and energy and optimism into the political process, I would say to them that the world is watching and inspired by their participation, regardless of what the ultimate outcome of the election was," he said.
But he also reiterated his desire to improve dialogue with Iran. "[A]s odious as I consider some of President Ahmadinejad's statements, as deep as the differences that exist between the United States and Iran on a range of core issues, that the use of tough, hard-headed diplomacy -- diplomacy with no illusions about Iran and the nature of the differences between our two countries -- is critical when it comes to pursuing a core set of our national security interests," he said.
Other American officials have been less circumspect in expressing their views on the events unfolding in Iran. "We must stand strong for democracy in Iran as we stood for democracy in Poland, Germany, and Czechoslovakia," John McCain, the defeated Republican presidential challenger in 2008, said in an interview with ABC News.
Democrats also have expressed dismay with what they portrayed as a blatant case of election-rigging. "It is apparent that the deep flaws in this so-called election began well before the Iranian people began voting," said Benjamin Cardin, a Democratic senator from Maryland and chairman of the US Helsinki Commission. "For Ahmadinejad and the ruling powers in Iran, it is clear that an 'end justifies the means mentality' prevails. There is no doubt whatsoever as to his unfitness as a leader."
The fact that official reaction from Washington has been more muted than in Europe could make things easier for Obama going forward, Vatanka suggested. "The Americans haven't been as forceful as the Germans or French and the Iranians have definitely noticed that."
By playing it cool, Obama can have it both ways when it comes to Iran -- at least for the time being. He remains a popular figure among younger Iranians, who tend to be Mousavi supporters. Thus, if the opposition protests in Tehran managed to force Ahmadinejad's ouster, Obama would still be well positioned to engage the country's next leader.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.