US PRESIDENT Barack Obama warned yesterday that the United States must not be seen to meddle in Iran’s internal affairs, despite his “deep concern” about last week’s presidential election and its aftermath.
Speaking at the White House after a meeting with South Korean president Lee Myung-Bak, Mr Obama said Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appeared to understand the level of concern about the election both inside and outside Iran.
“ Now, it’s not productive, given the history of US-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling – the US president meddling in Iranian elections,” Mr Obama said.
“What I will repeat and what I said yesterday is that when I see violence directed at peaceful protesters, when I see peaceful dissent being suppressed, wherever that takes place, it is of concern to me and it’s of concern to the American people. That is not how governments should interact with their people.”
Mr Obama has been more cautious than other western leaders in responding to the Iranian election and the demonstrations that followed it. Former Republican presidential candidate John McCain yesterday urged him to state clearly that the officially declared victory for Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was illegitimate.
“He should speak out that this is a corrupt, fraud, sham of an election. The Iranian people have been deprived of their rights. We support them in their struggle against a repressive, oppressive regime and they should not be subjected to four more years of Ahmadinejad and the radical Muslim clerics,” Mr McCain said.
The White House fears that any official US expression of support for the opposition in Iran could be used by Mr Ahmadinejad to portray his opponents as acting under foreign influence.
Mr Obama acknowledged on Monday that, after 30 years without a diplomatic presence in Tehran, Washington did not have enough information to determine whether the election was indeed stolen. “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,” he said.
The turmoil in Tehran comes amid important changes to the team Mr Obama has charged with leading his plan to engage with Iran. The White House is expected to announce this week that Dennis Ross, a former Clinton administration Middle East adviser and one of Israel’s most powerful supporters in Washington, is to move from his post as special envoy for Iran.
The move comes as Richard Holbrooke, the state department envoy responsible for Afghanistan and Pakistan, is adding a number of experts on Iran to his team.
Mr Obama believes Iran’s co-operation could be essential to the success of his campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and he made clear this week that the outcome of the election would not affect his commitment to pursuing a dialogue with Tehran.
“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,” Mr Obama said.
“Those are core interests not just to the United States but I think to a peaceful world in general.”