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With hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reelected, critics in the U.S. will want Obama to quickly try to engage Iran in talks and then move on to economic sanctions and military action if necessary.

By Paul Richter

June 14, 2009

Reporting from Washington — The reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered a stinging setback to the Obama administration’s hopes of cultivating a better relationship with the Islamic Republic.Although Ahmadinejad and his chief rival, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, share hard-line views on key foreign policy issues, a government that included the reformist Mousavi probably would have been more receptive to American overtures, U.S. officials and private experts said.

Now, as bitterly disputed results tout the victory of a strident leader who has called for the elimination of Israel, Congress and pro-Israel conservatives will undoubtedly press President Obama to put a tight deadline on his opening to Iran. They are expected to urge him to move on to tougher measures, such as economic sanctions or military action, to try to compel Tehran to give up its nuclear ambitions.

Ahmadinejad’s victory “could well mean more pressure to limit the timeline” for engagement, a senior U.S. official acknowledged before the election results were in.

U.S. officials insisted that they would press ahead with their offer of dialogue no matter who won the election. But Obama appeared to signal the administration’s preference for the moderate candidates Friday when he hailed the turbulent Iranian campaign as a sign that Iranians were looking at “new possibilities.”

Obama has contended since the beginning of his presidential campaign two years ago that the United States should offer an “unclenched” hand to Iran to try to overcome 30 years of hostility and mistrust. U.S. officials have been pressing for Tehran to open a new dialogue on its disputed nuclear program, and has been trying separately to open talks on the countries’ joint interests in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Ahmadinejad has given mixed signals on engagement, but Iranian officials made it clear that no serious conversations could be held until the presidential campaign was concluded.

But the protests that have flared in Iran in the wake of the election may also have ramifications for any dialogue between the two countries. Bruce Riedel, a veteran U.S. intelligence official now at the Brookings Institution think tank, said if the divisions from the election lingered, Iran would be less able to begin diplomacy.

“Iran in turmoil will not be ready to engage Obama,” he said.

Leading members of Congress, Israeli officials and others have contended that an Iranian government headed by Ahmadinejad was not likely to take any U.S. overture seriously, and would instead use the time to move ahead with its nuclear program.

With Ahmadinejad’s victory, “you’re going to see more pressure for sanctions, and for quick results from the engagement,” said Trita Parsi, president of the Washington-based National Iranian American Council. But he said that because any successful negotiation would take some time, the pressure “could have a crippling effect on the diplomacy.”

Because of the hostility to Ahmadinejad, it would be very difficult for any American president to negotiate a deal with Iran that would entitle the country to continue with even a small uranium enrichment program, analysts say.

One much-discussed compromise would allow Iran a limited enrichment program in return for closer international scrutiny of its nuclear program.

Lawmakers this year introduced legislation that would have imposed new sanctions on Iran, including provisions to halt gasoline sales to the country, and to force international energy firms to stop doing business there. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the Senate last month that such actions undermined the administration’s efforts to reach out to Iran, because they created the impression that the United States was not sincere.

Some American hawks have contended that Ahmadinejad’s election would be preferable because it would clarify the issues and help keep the administration from wasting time waiting to see whether the new Iranian government would move on the U.S. proposal for negotiations.

Elliott Abrams, one of President George W. Bush’s top officials on the Middle East, wrote in an op-ed article in the New York Times last week that the election of a reform candidate might have led the United States and its Western allies to the “delusion” that they could negotiate the end to Iran’s nuclear program, and persuaded them to make “preemptive concessions” to Iran.

Ahmadinejad and Mousavi have said they were committed to Iran’s right to enrich uranium. Iranians say the program is intended only for peaceful purposes, although the United States and many other world powers fear the goal is to gain nuclear weapons know-how.

Mousavi, like Ahmadinejad, also is believed to have been committed to continuing Iran’s support for the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, another top point of friction with the United States.

Yet Mousavi contended that the Iranian government’s confrontational approach to the West under Ahmadinejad had hurt the country, and said he intended to reduce those frictions.

Most key national security issues in Iran are decided not by the president, but by the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Nevertheless, the president has influence, and if Mousavi had won, he probably would have brought into the senior councils a substantial group of allies who might have moderated the government’s foreign policy approach, analysts say.

The senior U.S. official, while acknowledging that Ahmadinejad’s victory was likely to intensify pressure for an end to the U.S. overture to Iran, said it remained unclear what course the Iranian president would take. He said that although Ahmadinejad might continue his hard-line approach, he might also feel more secure in a second term.

“He could feel stronger, and that he now has a mandate to engage the United States,” said the official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the diplomacy.

Ahmadinejad’s victory seems likely to put to rest claims that Obama’s conciliatory approach was opening the way to sweeping reform in the Middle East.

When moderate forces won new seats in Lebanon’s parliamentary elections this month, some analysts suggested this was in part because of enthusiasm about the new American president. And there has been speculation that the seeming surge of support for Mousavi was partly an “Obama effect” in Iran.

But Parsi, though a supporter of Obama’s outreach program, said the issue of U.S.-Iranian relations was only a minor factor in the election, far behind economic concerns and the incumbent’s management.

“The argument is a little far-fetched,” he said.

Copyright 2009 Los Angeles Times