Last year, Barack Obama spent the spring arguing with Hillary Clinton over when, if ever, the next US president should talk to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

He spent the fall having essentially the same argument with John McCain.

Yet, when Obama took office last January it quickly became clear that dealing with the Iranians was nowhere near the top of his agenda.

As recently as last month, the Obama team discomforted Israeli leaders by rejecting their insistence that Iran and its nuclear ambitions represented the greatest crisis facing the Middle East.

The new administration argued instead that solving - or at least creating some real movement on - the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be the first priority, in part because doing so would take the wind out of Iran's sails.

In any event, they added, with a presidential election under way there was little point in reaching out to Tehran just now.

A cynic might say this was mainly about buying time. Between the economy, the banks, the car companies, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea, forming a new administration, tackling America's broken healthcare system and appointing a supreme court justice the idea that Iran could be put off, at least for a while, has to have had a lot of appeal at the White House.

That, however, was last month. Right now Iran looks like the worst sort of crisis: the kind where everyone agrees that the US needs to do something despite the fact that, realistically, there is not much it can do.

It is worth remembering that as recently as three weeks ago conventional wisdom in the West (among the, admittedly, few people who gave it much thought) was that Ahmadinejad was probably going to be re-elected.

Most analysts thought this likely, in part, because it was presumed that if the vote was close the Iranian Interior Ministry would massage the results in his favour. Few Western observers wanted Ahmadinejad to win, but most seemed resigned to it.

The final weeks of the Mir Hussain Mousavi campaign changed that. It was not just that the challenger appeared to have the enthusiasm and the momentum. By more than a few estimates he also appeared to have the numbers.

And, in the end, he probably did. I do not dismiss the idea that Ahmadinejad might have been able to win a clean vote, but as the events in Tehran have unfolded it has become very hard for a fair-minded observer to believe that is what happened.

All of which leaves the Obama administration in an unexpected and difficult spot. Appearing on television on Sunday, US Vice President Joe Biden insisted that "talks with Iran are not a reward for good behaviour", adding: "our interests are the same before the election as after the election".

That declaration was a refreshing change from the previous administration, but it left the real issue unaddressed. If Ahmadinejad survives by abandoning any pretence of popular legitimacy, at least in the eyes of the international community, that makes him a very different sort of negotiating partner from a head of government elected in a dodgy, but broadly fair, vote.

For the Obama administration, talking with Ahmadinejad always entailed a degree of domestic political risk. That risk has now increased exponentially.

Viewed from the United States the really scary thing about the Iranian election is the thought that this outcome may end up emboldening those who want to put military action at the centre of Washington's agenda. That faction had seemed to be in retreat, but that may now change.

Obama ran for president, in part, on the idea that engagement was, in and of itself, a good thing. The fact that this is even a subject of serious debate says a lot about the current political culture in the US.

Throughout the Cold War, Washington maintained lines of communication with the Soviet Union and its allies. Today, it sometimes seems as though one of the few things left and right can agree on is that the US should not talk to bad people (albeit they reach this conclusion for somewhat different reasons, and tend to have very different lists of 'bad' countries it ought not to deal with).

In recent weeks domestic political battles have led some Obama supporters to wonder how much political backbone the president actually has.

On healthcare and a host of other issues he has voiced preferences while refusing to say where his own bottom line lies.

A month ago few would have expected Iran to emerge as one of the new president's defining issues, but Tehran is moving rapidly to centre stage. Where the American president goes from here remains to be seen.

Gordon Robison is a writer and commentator based in Burlington, Vermont. He has lived in and reported on the Middle East for two decades.

Your comments

I will advice Obama and his team to remain far from Iran and its politics. It will be good for region as well as for the whole world. History told us when and where US interfere in any country the whole region came in crisis and I think the US also not have the habit to accomplish their promised task and run before completing it.
Javed H. Khan
Abu Dhabi,UAE
Posted: June 17, 2009, 08:39