The Cable

With turmoil in Tehran, Obama’s policy in flux

In the week before the Iranian elections, the White House's message was simple: We are prepared to engage whatever government emerges. The logic was equally straightforward: Washington's biggest strategic interest regarding Iran is its nuclear program, not its internal governance. Once the country chose its next president, the thinking went, the Obama administration would be hoping for a response to its outreach efforts. Hard-nosed, direct diplomacy might then get underway. 

At least, that was the plan.

As the dramatic events have unfolded in Iran in the wake of its disputed vote count, the White House has had to not just recalibrate its messaging on a daily basis, but rethink the fundamental underpinnings of its policy toward the Islamic Republic and the region.

Numerous outside Iran experts have been asked to meet with the White House, NSC, and State Department in recent days, The Cable has learned, to advise the administration on messaging, language, their analysis of what's underway, and how the situation might develop.

Conversations with some of them and with sources in government indicate that Obama's bedrock commitment to diplomacy with Iran remains firm, even as the White House -- like much of the world -- is inspired, shaken, and amazed by events unfolding in the Persian Gulf country.

"Obama is dedicated to diplomacy in a manner that is almost ideological," one Iran hand in touch with the administration said. Obama has a longer term vision, he continued. "He wants to do some stuff in the Middle East over the next eight years. He may not be able to achieve half of them unless he gets this huge piece of the puzzle [Iran] right."

Obama recognizes the "interconnectedness" between the different conflicts in the Middle East, the Iran hand continued, which makes calibrating what he wants to say or do on Iran at this dizzying moment even more fraught. "He probably has the strength and posture not to let himself get shaken by stuff like this. ... If he lets himself get distracted too much by this, then the larger strategic objective [gets muddled], only four months into his presidency, and it will not be easy to succeed."

In recent days, U.S. conservatives in Congress and the media have urged Obama to speak out more openly in favor of the demonstrators and condemn the Iranian government. Washington Post columnist Robert Kagan, for instance, even accused the president of "siding with the regime." Arizona Sen. John McCain said his erstwhile rival should "speak out that this is a corrupt, flawed sham of an election, and that the Iranian people have been deprived of their rights," adding, "We support them in their struggle against a repressive, oppressive regime and they should not be subjected to four more years of Ahmadinejad and the radical Muslim clerics."

According to multiple sources, the U.S. president believes Washington has a limited ability to influence events inside Iran for the good, despite -- and even because of -- the strength of his podium. Many Iran experts agree, cautioning that more strident statements would be counterproductive, and the Iranian government today complained of U.S. "meddling" in its internal affairs and has attempted to paint opposition supporters as foreign stooges. "It's very difficult to accept that maybe there are things one cannot affect," the Iran hand said.

Even before Iran's elections, people familiar with the administration's Iran policy outreach efforts say, there was growing uncertainty in the Obama administration about whether the United States and Iran would actually get to direct engagement in the coming months. The administration has sent several quiet, diplomatic missives to Iran, and Obama has made repeated public overtures inviting direct engagement, but has apparently received no response, according to administration sources. Obama strongly feels that he has to keeping trying, they say, but thinks it will be very hard. His thinking is not just to have a compartmentalized negotatiation about Iran's nuclear program and support for terrorism, people familiar with his thinking said, but a dialogue that recognizes at some level Iran's legitimate strategic interests in the region. 

Amid the coverage of Iran's demonstrations, few noticed this week when Israel's intelligence service publicly stated that it thinks Iran could have a deployable nuclear weapon in 2014 --  an assessment almost identical to that of the much-maligned 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program. Up to now, Israel has repeatedly predicted that Iran would have breakout capability for a bomb in the one-two year range.

Several sources viewed Israel's apparent shift in emphasis as significant, for two reasons: First, Israel may worry that scaring its public about the Iran threat could lead to emigration. Second, the focus on the less immediate threat in terms of the estimate of a deployable nuclear weapon might signal that the Obama administration has more time to let its complex engagement strategy play out.

One of two chief architects of that strategy is Dennis Ross, currently a special advisor for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But Ross's position is said to be in flux, though the administration has been even more than typically opaque about the staffing decision. While Ross is reportedly being promoted to a senior advisor position at the NSC, some sources say the anticipated move was also intended to make him a less front-line player on Iran policy, as engagement is run out of the State Department, even as it brings him closer to the president and the White House policy nerve center.  And there is still confusion over what job exactly Ross is being promoted to: Some sources say Ross will be working above the two Near East/Persian Gulf senior directors, Daniel Shapiro and Puneet Talwar, whereas FP colleague Peter Feaver writes that he understands Ross will become the NSC senior advisor on strategic planning, the post Feaver held in the Bush administration. Iran hands are completely mum and perhaps somewhat in the dark about the Ross move, and it's all being handled with a high degree of secrecy.

The biggest uncertainty, of course, is the outcome of events underway in Iran: who will emerge as its president and how the protest movement affects the status of the clerical regime itself, especially Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; and how that outcome will affect Washington's efforts to negotiate with the Iranian government about its nuclear program.

One way it might go, one Iran hand said, is that Ahmadinejad emerges the declared winner in the midst of domestic repression, and chooses to engage as a way to ease domestic pressure. An alternative and perhaps more likely development, he said, is that Ahmadinejad emerges the official winner and rejects international talks on any compromise altogether.

But the landscape of possible scenarios is even more uncertain than that. "Today the nominal leader of the opposition forces is a reformed radical, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is notably lacking in personal charisma," former veteran NSC Iran official Gary Sick wrote asking if Iran is experiencing another full-scale revolution. "On the other side is the constitutional Leader, Ayatollah Khamene`i, who is widely perceived as a cautious political animal ... who compensates for his own lack of charisma by manipulation of the political system and the institutions most loyal to him ... Neither of these men seems to be fully in control of their own forces, let alone the situation."

AFP/Getty Images

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