Obama Aide on Iran: “It’s not about us”

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Despite the occasional English-language sign toted amid the protesting masses in Tehran, one fact remains: the protests in Iran this week, unlike the turmoil that preceded the 1979 Iranian revolution, does not have so much to do directly with the United States. The dispute now gripping the Iranian streets is one of domestic politics in the most literal sense, with different factions of the government and political elite struggling against each other over mostly domestic issues.

That’s not to say that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants to take the United States out of the conversation. In his press conference Sunday, Ahmadinejad described the contested Iranian election as a “blow to the tyrannical pillars of the ruling nations of the world,” also known as the “domineering and hegemonic capitalist system that lacks culture.”

But the White House is consciously working to avoid any statements that might provide fuel for Ahmadinejad’s populist rants. All of the public comments so far have sought to minimize the United States role in adjudicating or intervening in the Iranian dispute. “The point is this is not about us,” said one administration official, who has been working on the issue of Iran. “The point here is we will continue to monitor the situation to see how it, in a sense, resolves itself over the coming days. The pressure is on them to demonstrate to the world that this was a legitimate election and that the outcome reflects the will of the Iranian people.”

This message is likely to be repeated later today, when President Obama takes questions from reporters at around 5 p.m. following a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Look for the president to express concern over the election results and the violence, while calling for patience as the true winner of the election is sorted out. As Vice President Biden said yesterday on Meet the Press, “Look, we just don’t know enough. . . . It’s been less than 24 hours since the polls have closed.” There is no message here for the Iranian people. No attempt to intervene publicly in its domestic politics. No urgency to congratulate a winner in the election, or declare the current election results invalid.

This position makes diplomatic sense. Obama is seeking expanded relations with the Iranian government no matter who controls the presidency. But as Scott Wilson points out in the Washington Post today, the wait-and-see approach is also not always the rule in U.S. diplomacy. It took just one day for the Bush Administration to recognize the unelected interim government in Venezuela, after Hugo Chavez was briefly toppled in a coup in 2002. The decision quickly turned into an embarrassment for the White House, as Chavez regained power a few days later.

UPDATE: As expected, Obama made very clear Monday afternoon that the U.S. did not want to meddle in Iranian affairs. His full comments after the jump.

Obviously all of us have been watching the news from Iran.  And I want to start off by being very clear that it is up to Iranians to make decisions about who Iran’s leaders will be; that we respect Iranian sovereignty and want to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran, which sometimes the United States can be a handy political football — or discussions with the United States. Having said all that, I am deeply troubled by the violence that I’ve been seeing on television.  I think that the democratic process — free speech, the ability of people to peacefully dissent — all those are universal values and need to be respected.  And whenever I see violence perpetrated on people who are peacefully dissenting, and whenever the American people see that, I think they’re, rightfully, troubled.

My understanding is, is that the Iranian government says that they are going to look into irregularities that have taken place.  We weren’t on the ground, we did not have observers there, we did not have international observers on hand, so I can’t state definitively one way or another what happened with respect to the election.  But what I can say is that there appears to be a sense on the part of people who were so hopeful and so engaged and so committed to democracy who now feel betrayed.  And I think it’s important that, moving forward, whatever investigations take place are done in a way that is not resulting in bloodshed and is not resulting in people being stifled in expressing their views.

Now, with respect to the United States and our interactions with Iran, I’ve always believed that as 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, specifically, making sure that we are not seeing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East triggered by Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon; making sure that Iran is not exporting terrorist activity.  Those are core interests not just to the United States but I think to a peaceful world in general.

We will continue to pursue a tough, direct dialogue between our two countries, and we’ll see where it takes us.  But even as we do so, 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.  And they should know that the world is watching.

And particularly to the youth of Iran, I want them to know that we in the United States do not want to make any decisions for the Iranians, but we do believe that the Iranian people and their voices should be heard and respected.