As Iran roils, US still hopes for talks

Biden points to doubts about election results article page player in wide format.
By Michael Kranish
Globe Staff / June 15, 2009
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WASHINGTON - The Obama administration will continue to seek talks with Iran's leaders despite an "awful lot of questions" about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's claim of reelection, Vice President Joe Biden said yesterday. The effort to tread a fine diplomatic line came as violent protests continued to flare in the Islamic Republic, and the opposition candidate called for a new election.

The contested election results put the Obama administration in a deepening bind on an issue that is one of the most important foreign policy matters facing the White House. President Obama had called for an effort to renew ties between the countries, and his administration had hopes that Ahmadinejad's main rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, would triumph. But with Ahmadinejad claiming victory and Mousavi yesterday calling for the result to be annulled, the Obama administration tried to avoid taking sides.

Instead, Biden said in an appearance on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press" that, prior to the election, the "decision has been made to talk" to whoever is president as long as the United States is convinced that would be in Washington's interest.

"Talks with Iran are not a reward for good behavior," Biden said. Rather, he said, they are a reflection of the United States' best interest: "We want them to cease and desist from seeking a nuclear weapon and having one in its possession, and secondly to stop supporting terror."

In Tehran, the unrest yesterday was the worst at least since student-led protests 10 years ago. Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets to denounce the results of last week's election. Protesters have smashed windows and set some buildings on fire, while baton-wielding police raced to stifle the dissent. There was no official word on casualties.

Iranian authorities shut down some Internet sites and text-messaging systems that had been used by Mousavi supporters to organize resistance. ABC News aired footage last night of police spraying tear gas and dispersing thousands of protesters.

"I urge you, Iranian nation, to continue your nationwide protests in a peaceful and legal way," Mousavi said in a statement. ABC reported that he and some other opposition leaders were under house arrest.

Biden stressed that the protests in Iran against the election results - and the action against some Mousavi supporters by Iranian security forces - raised "real doubts" about whether the elections were democratic. He also acknowledged in the interview that he had once called Ahmadinejad a "madman" and "the crazy president," but he said yesterday that he and other administration officials were now compelled to speak carefully.

Even Biden's effort to tread carefully in his remarks represented a stronger tone than was used by the administration on Saturday, when White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement that the White House was monitoring reports of voting irregularities.

Biden said that the United States has to accept "for the time being" Iran's statement that Ahmadinejad was reelected, but then said "we don't have enough facts . . . to make a firm judgment."

Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, said last night that he shares "the concern of thousands in Iran and millions around the world about the announced results of Iran's presidential election."

He said that the United States "must have no illusions about the developments" in Iran, where he said the "hard-line clerics and their allies demonstrated that they intend to remain firmly in control of the government and its policies." Kerry said that "underscores how vitally important it is to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons."

Ahmadinejad, appearing before a large crowd of supporters, dismissed the protests as representing something akin to "passions after a soccer match." He said that he had been overwhelmingly reelected. "Where are the irregularities in the election?" he said.

Trita Parsi, the president of the US-based Iranian-American Council, which calls itself the largest organization of Iranians living in the United States, said in a telephone interview yesterday that he was not surprised that the Obama administration is expressing a willingness to talk with Iranian leaders regardless of concerns about the election.

"The decision to negotiate with Iran has never been driven by any like or dislike of any particular candidate, but rather because it lies in the interests of the United States to get Iranian assistance in stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan," Parsi said. The rationale behind Obama's statement during his presidential campaign that he would make a diplomatic effort to improve relations with Iran still exists, Parsi said. As for the election results, Parsi said that while "there is an overwhelming perception this was not a fair election," it may never be known whether the results were rigged.

Ali Banuazizi, an Iran expert and professor of political science at Boston College, said yesterday that Ahmadinejad is likely to view the results as an affirmation of his policies, including Iran's continued development of its nuclear program, and would be likely to continue them. While Ahmadinejad might be open to negotiations with the Obama administration, Banuazizi said, "I doubt very much they would agree to suspend the centrifuge activities," referring to nuclear-related development.

Biden said yesterday that "we are not going to allow Iran to go nuclear any more than the rest of the world is going to allow it to go nuclear."

Some analysts also have suggested that the United States announce that it wants direct talks with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who would remain in his powerful position regardless of who is elected president.

Biden said in his NBC appearance that he doesn't think Iran is a democracy and noted the power of Khamenei and other leaders. "This is a regime, it's not a single person," Biden said. "The supreme leader is, by all accounts, the supreme leader. And so I doubt whether there's anything that can be done . . . of consequence, without the supreme leader's sanctioning."

Analysts said last night it remained to be seen whether the election would lead to a new round of crackdowns on dissent, or whether the Iranian government eventually would try to institute some reforms to mollify some opponents.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.