WASHINGTON — As they watch the bedlam unfold after Iran's disputed presidential election, U.S. officials are uncertain whether it might lead to reform and an easing of tensions with Tehran or to a crackdown by an insecure leadership. Either way, they say, their course is clear: Say little, and do even less.
Obama administration officials recognize an Iranian sensitivity that dates to 1953, when the CIA helped topple popular nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. Today, both hard-liners and pro-reform Iranians remain deeply suspicious of American motives.
U.S. officials say that if they publicly back reformers, it will harm those groups in the public's eye. And if Americans denounce Iran's incumbent president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it could make President Obama's long-promised diplomatic overture more difficult.
So Obama has accepted his public status of an onlooker.
"It's not productive, given the history of the U.S.-Iranian relationship, to be seen as meddling," he said Tuesday.
In the days since the election, the administration has tried to show it is standing up for democratic principles, yet keeping a careful distance from events.
Angering some U.S. conservatives, Obama has avoided charging election fraud or siding with the more moderate candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Obama said that he had "deep concerns" about the election and "stands strongly with the universal principle that people's voices should be heard and not suppressed."
He hastened to add, however, that "how that plays out over the next several days and several weeks is something ultimately for the Iranian people to decide."
Obama's approach underscores differences with his predecessor, George W. Bush, who believed his administration should do all it could to spread American-style democracy.
"The take-away from Iraq is that it is very, very difficult and extraordinarily expensive to try to impose an American-style approach on another country," said a senior administration official, discussing internal strategy on condition of anonymity. "If change is going to come, it'll come from within."
In addition, he said, a low American profile keeps the focus on what the Iranian government is doing.
The administration also has been coordinating its messages with those of allies who are in a better position to speak out forcefully. The European Union, Germany and France have been substantially more pointed with Tehran.
But U.S. critics have been gradually stepping up complaints that the administration has not been tough enough.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was Obama's rival in last year's presidential election, on Tuesday denounced what he called "a corrupt, fraud, sham of an election" and called on Obama to speak out against it.
U.S. officials are divided in their expectations of how the dispute in Iran will turn out.
"No one can anticipate what's going to happen next, and if you're in the U.S. government you don't want to be in the position of sticking your foot in it if the situation turns in some dramatic way, which it inevitably will do," said Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department official now at the Brookings Institution.
One optimistic theory is that if Ahmadinejad remains in office, he may try to strengthen his domestic support by moving toward improved ties with the U.S. and other powers.
But U.S. officials also are candid about their limited knowledge of events in Iran. "We're limited about what we can do; we're limited in what we know," one official said.