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Disputed Iranian ballot complicates U.S. diplomacy

WASHINGTON - The crackdown on dissent following thedisputed elections in Iran puts the Obama administration in atougher spot, as it sticks with diplomacy as the best way to endthat country's nuclear weapons program.

Vice President Joe Biden said Sunday that efforts to engageTehran, with the central goal of halting its pursuit of nuclearweapons, will continue. But the charges of vote fraud and thebattles between police and opposition protesters appear to be majorsetbacks for the new U.S. administration's policy.

President Barack Obama already is under renewed politicalpressure at home to get tough with Iran.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., said Sunday the Iranian rulers hadstolen the election and made a mockery of democracy. He urged Obamato speak out in defense of silenced Iranian demonstrators, but heoffered no concrete steps to strengthen the U.S. case.

Biden made clear that the administration, while uncertain of theimplications of the announced electoral victory of hard-line

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over his reformist opponent, MirHossein Mousavi, has no intention of abandoning its Iran policy.Obama has put Iran at the center of his policy of extending an openhand to adversaries; the Iranians so far have responded mainly withsilence.

The administration is trying to understand whether Friday's voteaccurately reflected Iranians' response to Obama's effort to endthe nearly 30-year diplomatic estrangement from the IslamicRepublic, Biden said during an interview on NBC's "Meet thePress."

"That's the question," Biden said, adding: "Is this theresult of the Iranian people's wishes? The hope is that the Iranianpeople, all their votes have been counted, they've been countedfairly. But look, we just don't know enough" since the voting.

While Ahmadinejad insisted the results showing his landslidevictory were fair and legitimate, Biden said, "You know I havedoubts."

For the time being, Biden said, the U.S. accepts the election'sannounced outcome, although questions about its legitimacy wereraised by many other governments.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said his country is"very worried" about the situation in Iran and he criticized theIranian authorities' "somewhat brutal reaction" to the streetprotests in Tehran.

German's foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said the"course of the election in Iran raises many questions." He calledon Iranian authorities to explain what happened.

Two important U.S. allies -- Afghanistan and Pakistan, bothneighbors of Iran -- offered official congratulations to Ahmadinejadfor his re-election. Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, toldhim the victory was "an acknowledgment of your outstandingservices."

Ahmadinejad dismissed the street protests -- the worst unrest ina decade in Tehran -- as "not important." He said Friday's votewas "real and free" and insisted the results showing hislandslide victory were fair and legitimate.

The election was widely seen as an important event, but it heldout little prospect of bringing substantial change in Iranianforeign policy.

Ahmadinejad is Iran's political face to the world, but theclerics and their military wing, known as the Revolutionary Guard,are the real masters of the country's destiny. They dictate everyimportant policy and decide who is allowed to run for electedoffice.

"We should be very careful about overreacting to the Iranianelection," said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center forStrategic and International Studies, who has been a close observerof the Iranian scene for decades.

He said he believes Obama's advisers know the limits of changein Tehran as long as the country is ruled by supreme leader

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his supporting cast of theocrats.

"They realize that it is the supreme leader and those aroundhim who shape any movement in terms of U.S.-Iranian relations,"Cordesman said. "This was going to be true regardless of who waselected as Iranian president. I don't think anyone expected that inan election where four candidates were allowed to run -- who all hadto conform to the control of the supreme leader -- the outcome wasgoing to produce dramatic changes in Iran's nuclear posture or itsrelations with other states in the region."

Among the complexities with Iran are its ties to Afghanistan,where tens of thousands of U.S. and allied troops are fighting aresilient insurgency and pouring enormous effort into helpingestablish a stable government. The U.S. has doubts about Iran'sassertions of wanting to play a helpful role there, accusing Tehranof supplying arms and other military capabilities to Talibanfighters.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters on Friday inBelgium that Iran is playing a "double game" in Afghanistan --professing good intentions while quietly undermining security.

Gates' press secretary, Geoff Morrell, said in a telephoneinterview Sunday that Gates was told by U.S. commanders as recentlyas last week of a "pretty consistent flow" of improvisedexplosive devices and other Iranian weaponry into Afghanistan,although he said it has been relatively modest in numbers.

Iran also is a critical factor in a range of other issues ofcentral importance to the United States, including internationalterrorism, energy security, the campaign to stabilize Iraq and thepush for a wider Arab-Israeli peace.

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment forInternational Peace, said Sunday that this probably means Obamawill continue his outreach policy.

"Once the dust settles the United States will eventually haveno choice but to talk to Tehran, but it will likely be a cold,hard-nosed dialogue rather than friendly greetings," Sadjadpoursaid.

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