Despite questioning the legitimacy of the Iranian elections, and sharp attacks on President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, US officials conceded they had no option but to deal with the new reality in Tehran, Khaled Dawoud
reports from Washington
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An Iranian man walks past the US government emblem on the wall of the former US Embassy in Tehran
American charges that Iranian President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was involved in the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran after the 1979 Islamic revolution have largely faded away, and senior members of the Bush administration conceded that they have to wait and see before making any final judgements on the new Iranian leader.
US officials had criticised the Iranian elections before they took place, pointing to the vetting process carried out by Iran's Expediency Council, whose members had excluded nearly 1,000 candidates ahead of the vote. However, the unexpected victory of Ahmadinejad has taken the US by surprise, and indeed has surprised the rest of the world and even experts on Iranian politics.
Following what seems like a tradition in Iranian politics, the former mayor of Tehran scored a stunning victory against a veteran of the Iranian regime, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who ran on a platform promising to improve his country's ties with the West, including the US. This seemed like a repetition of the 1997 Iranian elections when President Mohamed Khatami, also a little known figure at the time, defeated Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri, who had the support of the hard-line ruling establishment led by the Supreme Guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khatami's term ends on 2 August, after which Ahmadinejad will be officially inaugurated as president.
But while Khatami's election was seen by US officials as a relatively positive sign due to his moderate views and calls for reform, Ahmadinejad mobilised his supporters through his hard-line stance, both against the US and the deteriorating economic conditions of the majority of Iranians, which he saw as a betrayal of the principles of the Iranian revolution he took part in as a young rebel. Ahmadinejad told his supporters that Iran did not need to improve its relations with the US, and that it should opt for better relations with countries like China and India.
Although the new Iranian leader sought to soften his stand after his surprising victory, US officials could not but be unwelcoming. However, they insisted that the vital issue for Washington at this stage, and regardless of who occupied the presidency in Iran, is that Tehran remains committed to its agreement with the European Union not to develop its nuclear programme. France, Germany and Britain (known as the EU-3) reached an agreement with Iran to suspend its programme to enrich uranium, a first step towards obtaining the capability to develop nuclear weapons.
Asked to comment on charges that surfaced against Ahmadinejad shortly after his victory that he personally participated in taking US diplomats hostage in their embassy in Tehran in 1979, US President George W Bush said he had no information yet on the subject. "I have no information, but, obviously, his involvement raises many questions, and knowing how active people are at finding answers to questions, I'm confident they'll be found."
He added, "My message is that it's very important at this moment for the EU-3 to send a strong message to the new person there (Ahmadinejad) that the world is united in saying that you should not be given the capabilities of enriching uranium, which could then be converted into a nuclear weapon. In other words, we've got a new man who has assumed power, and he must hear a focused message."
US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley delivered a similar message, while conceding that Washington had no option at this stage but to deal with the new reality. "We're obviously going to have to deal with the Iranian government, of which he's going to head," Hadley said. He added, "One of the most important issues, of course, is the nuclear issue, and one of the things we will obviously do is make clear that we think that it is important that the suspension that has been negotiated be respected by this new government, that this new government continue in the negotiations with the EU-3 towards a permanent suspension and permanent cessation of enrichment and reprocessing activities. It will be important for the new president to understand that position and we hope that he and his government will continue those negotiations."
White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, had harsher words for the Iranian regime. "The Iranian people are denied most of their rights. We're concerned about the unelected few who run the country. This is a regime that has raised a lot of concerns because of its past actions. It has a history of concealing and hiding its nuclear activities from the international community. It has a history of violating its international obligations, and so that raises serious concerns."
US State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the US would "judge the Iranian government by their actions, not their words". However, he pointed out, "With the conclusion of elections in Iran, we have seen, at this point, nothing that dissuades us from our view previously stated that Iran is out of step with the rest of the region. You look around, you look at Iraq, you look at Afghanistan, you look at Lebanon, again, those are countries that are headed in a positive direction. You also look at the behaviors that they continue to engage in the pursuit of nuclear weapons under a cover of a peaceful nuclear programme, support for terrorism in the region, the efforts of those engaged in that terrorism to derail any sort of accommodation between the Israelis and the Palestinians, as well as the treatment of their own people."
Hadi Smati, an Iranian professor now in Washington, said the negative US reaction to Ahmadinejad's election was exaggerated, pointing that the real decision-making power on foreign policy issues would remain in the hands of the Supreme Guide, Ayatollah Khamenei. He added that he did not expect any major changes in Iran's foreign policy, whether in terms of the nuclear issue, or its stand on Iraq and the Middle East peace process.
Karim Sadjadpour, the representative in Iran for the International Crisis Group, a non-profit group that works to prevent and resolve conflicts, said Ahmadinejad's victory in Iran's presidential runoff was the result of a widespread feeling that "he was the candidate who could offer economic deliverance and do away with a lot of corruption and economic stagnation that had marked Iranian politics and economics for the last eight years."
Sadjadpour conceded, meanwhile, that Ahmadinejad's election would not signal an improvement in US-Iranian relations, "because the supreme leader is very sceptical of Washington and the Bush administration".