Stung by criticism that the U.S. has not condemned Iran’s crackdown on demonstrators harshly enough, the Obama administration said Monday that the protests would weaken the current regime and might improve the chances of capping Iran’s nuclear program.
“Our long-term security interests haven’t changed,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters. “Our interests, as it relates to our grave concern about the help that’s provided to terrorists, the grave concern that we have about the pursuit of a nuclear weapon, remain unchanged.”
At the State Department, spokesman Ian Kelly dismissed speculation that the administration is rethinking its engagement policy. Although the “focus is on what’s going on in Iran right now” and “this is not about our bilateral relationship,” engagement is not “on hold,” he said.
“We have made a strategic decision to engage on a number of fronts with Iran, and we’ve tried many years of isolation, and we are pursuing a different path now,” Mr. Kelly said.
The administration has been criticized by some Republicans and democracy advocates for continuing to seek talks with Iran despite its harsh treatment of demonstrators protesting what many Iranians perceive as a rigged outcome to the June 12 presidential elections.
Despite a massive security presence in the streets of Tehran on Monday, sporadic protests continued and supporters of opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi have called for a nationwide strike on Tuesday. Violent clashes on Saturday left at least 10 dead, and at least seven died last week. Hundreds of reform politicians and journalists have been arrested.
President Obama has criticized Iran’s behavior, but also said that Iranians must determine their own political future. On Monday, a senior administration official suggested a silver lining in Iran’s political upheaval.
“The government’s domestic political capital has been seriously eroded,” said the official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the topic. “That may lead to willingness on their part to engage more.”
Tehran has so far refused to join talks with the West on its controversial nuclear program, but in November, incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad congratulated Mr. Obama on his election victory and has suggested at times that Iran would be willing to talk.
The U.S. administration had hoped that it would have an opportunity this week for direct interaction with Iranian officials, who were invited by Italy to a meeting on the sidelines of the gathering of foreign ministers from the Group of Eight leading industrialized countries in Trieste, northern Italy.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is recovering from elbow surgery, canceled her trip on Monday and asked William J. Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, to lead the U.S. delegation after it appeared unlikely that Iran would send representatives.
“With three days to go, I still do not have a reply. I must consider that Iran has declined the invitation,” Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told Italian television. “Iran has lost an opportunity by not participating in the conference.”
A number of senior Republicans, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, have faulted Mr. Obama for not speaking out more forcefully against the Iranian government since the reported landslide victory of Mr. Ahmadinejad sparked nationwide protests.
Some Iranian human rights activists have also criticized Mr. Obama.
Mohsen Sazegara, a founder of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards who is now a prominent dissident in exile, said, “We need a very clear announcement to the world that the U.S. will not negotiate with the coup d’etat government of Iran. Promise Iranians that as long the government is repressing the majority on the streets, the U.S. will not negotiate with a coup d’etat government. This is what we expect from President Obama.”
Suzanne Maloney, an Iran specialist at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, said she doubted that the current Iranian government would be more eager to reach a deal with the U.S. now.
“I can understand the argument intellectually, but it seems very unlikely,” she said. “When push comes to shove, it’s not going to be that easy for us or for them” to resolve the nuclear issue.
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, also expressed doubts.
The Obama administration “wants the best out of the situation, but I’m not sure they will get it,” he said.
However, over the weekend, Republican Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, backed the administration’s overtures.
Bruce Riedel, a former senior official on the White House National Security Council dealing with Iran, compared the situation to past dealings with communist nations.
“Our national interest is best served by engaging with Iran, just like it was best served by engaging with the Soviet Union and even China after Tiananmen. The logic of why we want to engage doesn’t change, but the politics becomes more difficult.”
The West has accused Iran of pursuing a nuclear weapon under the cover of a civilian program, but Tehran insists its efforts are for peaceful purposes. The United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China have invited Iran’s nuclear negotiator to a meeting and have offered a package of political and economic incentives. Iran has yet to respond.
The Obama administration also lifted a ban on inviting Iranian diplomats to events at U.S. embassies and consulates abroad. In fact, it actively encouraged American missions to include Iranians in their upcoming July Fourth celebrations.
“There is no thought to rescinding the invitations to Iranian diplomats,” Mr. Kelly said.
Barbara Slavin, Jon Ward and Eli Lake contributed to this report.