WASHINGTON — The reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivered a stinging setback to the Obama administration's hopes of cultivating a better relationship with the Islamic Republic.
U.S. officials insisted Saturday that they intended to press forward with their effort to engage Iran, despite their misgivings about the outcome of the election. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said U.S. officials were "watching and waiting," and hoping that "the outcome reflects the will of the Iranian people."
Yet the disputed victory by Ahmadinejad was clearly a disappointment for the administration, coming one day after President Obama hailed the public debate in Iran as a sign that its people were open to "new possibilities."
Former U.S. officials and other experts said the outcome could make it even harder for the United States to work with Iran.
Bruce Riedel, a veteran U.S. intelligence official now at the Brookings Institution think tank, said that if the divisions from the election lingered, Iran would be less able to begin diplomacy.
"Iran in turmoil will not be ready to engage Obama," he said.
If the world comes to see Iran's government as illegitimate, diplomatic outreach and new incentives from the United States will come to look like a questionable idea.
Congress and pro-Israel conservatives, already strongly critical of Ahmadinejad, will undoubtedly press Obama to put a tight deadline on his overture to Iran. They are expected to urge him to move on to tougher measures, such as economic sanctions or military action, to try to compel Tehran to give up its nuclear ambitions.
Ahmadinejad's victory "could well mean more pressure to limit the timeline" for engagement, a senior U.S. official acknowledged before the election results were in.
Obama has contended since the beginning of his presidential campaign two years ago that the United States should offer an "unclenched" hand to Iran to try to overcome 30 years of hostility and mistrust. U.S. officials have been pressing for Tehran to open a new dialogue on its disputed nuclear program, and has been trying separately to open talks on the countries' joint interests in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Ahmadinejad has given mixed signals on engagement, but Iranian officials made it clear that no serious conversations could be held until the presidential campaign was concluded.
Leading members of Congress, Israeli officials and others have contended that an Iranian government headed by Ahmadinejad was not likely to take any U.S. overture seriously, and would instead stall and use the time to move ahead with its nuclear program.
With Ahmadinejad's victory, "you're going to see more pressure for sanctions, and for quick results from the engagement," said Trita Parsi, president of the Washington-based National Iranian American Council. But he said that because any successful negotiation would take some time, the pressure "could have a crippling effect on the diplomacy."
Because of the hostility to Ahmadinejad, it would be very difficult for any American president to negotiate a deal with Iran that would entitle the country to continue with even a small uranium enrichment program, analysts say.
One much-discussed compromise would allow Iran to have a limited enrichment program in return for closer international scrutiny of its nuclear program.
Lawmakers this year introduced legislation that would have imposed new sanctions, including provisions to halt gasoline sales to Iran, and to force international energy firms to stop doing business there. Clinton told the Senate last month that such legislation undermined the administration's efforts to reach out to Iran, because it created the impression that the United States was not sincere.
Some American hawks have contended that Ahmadinejad's reelection would be preferable because it would clarify the issues and help keep the administration from wasting time waiting to see whether the new Iranian government would move on the U.S. proposal for negotiations.
Elliott Abrams, one of President George W. Bush's top officials on the Middle East, wrote in an article in the New York Times last week that the election of a reform candidate might have led the United States and its Western allies to the "delusion" that they could negotiate an end to Iran's nuclear program and persuaded them to make "preemptive concessions" to Iran.
Ahmadinejad and his reformist rival Mir-Hossein Mousavi have said they are committed to Iran's right to enrich uranium. Iran says the program is intended only for peaceful purposes, but the United States and many other world powers fear the goal is to gain nuclear weapons know-how.
Mousavi, like Ahmadinejad, also is believed to have been committed to continuing Iran's support for the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, another point of friction with the United States.