Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Obama Administration Recognizes Ahmadinejad as "elected leader" of Iran

By Barry Rubin

No, I don't want to keep writing every day about the Obama Administration's Middle East policy. There are many other topics I'd prefer, but the problem is that they keep doing things.

Now the White House has recognized Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as "the elected leader" of Iran, in the words of White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.

Let's be clear here. It would be understandable, though worthy of serious debate, if the U.S. government said that Ahmadinejad was the de facto leader of Iran. What was called for here was a little sneer, a little sarcasm. Something like: He is in fact the president and so we have to face the fact that he's running the country. Or even, If we are going to deal with Iran in any way, we must recognize that he is functioning as president.

There needed to be some reservation, some caveat, some hope thrown to the millions of brave oppositionists who are being beaten, arrested, tried in court, or even murdered.

But what we got was this, quoting the AP dispatch:

"Gibbs was asked [August 4] if the White House recognized Ahmadinejad as the country's legitimate president.

"`He's the elected leader,' Gibbs responded."

Did you catch that? In the context, and every detail is carefully orchestrated to send the proper message, Gibbs did two things:

First, he implied that Ahmadinejad is the legitimate president, that is he is properly president, that his placement in office was legally and properly done.

Second, he reinforced this idea and went further, in effect endorsing the election as fair and Ahmadinejad as the winner. "Elected president" means he got the most votes, right?

Was this an error? Did Gibbs mess up? Did the State Department get on the phones to the White House and urge some "qualification" on this statement? We will see but no hint of that yet.

This is deeply and profoundly wrong. Again, some would say the United States should withhold recognition altogether but at least if the administration is going to accept the reality of the situation, at least it should make clear its disapproval.

Totally aside from the morality--and I remember the days when a "liberal" was someone who argued that the United States should not recognize governments achieving power by force or dishonest elections--there is the matter of U.S. interest.

The United States is engaged in a conflict--if that word is too strong for you, say competition, rivalry--with Iran.  Anything that shows the true nature of that regime should be highlighted, even if the administration seeks to engage Tehran. It scores points with allies and neutrals, weakening the other side, a side which--among other things--is killing American soldiers in Iraq.

In addition, the administration should want to court the opposition, a huge proportion of Iranians who, if they were to take over, would reverse the regime's policies of anti-Americanism, sponsorship of terrorism, subversion, and if not building nuclear weapons than at least slowing the pace and being less likely to use them.

But that's not the philosophy of this administration which believes that to engage with an enemy you must be sure never to offend it, use power or leverage, or even be critical in any way if that can somehow be avoided.

Despite my own criticisms of the administrations Middle East policy, I'm truly shocked and dismayed by this shameful action, even though I can't say I'm surprised.

Update: And what was Ahmadinejad's reaction? He acknowledged the recognition of his election--he understood the signal all right--but complained that he didn''t receive personal congratulations from Obama! That's a wonderful case study in what concessions to Tehran achieve, or rather don't achieve.

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