No one outside the inner precincts of Iran's power structure knows who won that country's presidential election Friday. It's possible that a majority voted to re-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as he claims.
It's also possible, as much of his opposition fervently believes, that the election was stolen. What we can say for certain is that the election was neither free nor fair. When a regime peremptorily chooses which candidates can run; shutters newspapers, Web sites and television bureaus; silences text messaging; and throws critics into prison — such a regime should not expect its pronouncements on election results to garner any respect.
So, as a first step, the Obama administration should take care not to signal more respect for those results than they merit. Administration officials are right to be responding cautiously and to let the process play out. But there are principles that the administration could be defending even now, squarely supporting the rule of law and democratic expression in Iran. The United States could make clear that a government wanting to be taken seriously by the international community should not use violence against peaceful protests, arrest opposition leaders and their followers, jam radio broadcasts, or block Internet use. It could call for a transparent process to address opposition claims of fraud.
If Ahmadinejad consolidates his claimed victory, there will be time enough to develop a strategy. To deal with Iran's complex power structure without according it more legitimacy than it merits was always going to be a challenge; it would get harder now. President Barack Obama has said, rightly, that Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions are unacceptable. He also has made clear, again rightly, that the West should explore all diplomatic possibilities before setting down a path of tightening sanctions or military action. That will remain true: The United States should be willing to talk about arms control and other areas of national interest with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and whoever else can speak for the nation's foreign policy.
But it is now undeniable that many, many Iranians reject the Ahmadinejad regime and much of what it stands for, at home and abroad. The presidential campaigns revealed tremendous popular ferment in Iran and large swaths of discontent with current economic, foreign and social policies, including the repression of women. U.S.-Iranian relations are unlikely to flourish as long as so many voices there remain suppressed. As Obama began doing in his Cairo speech, the United States has to find a way to speak to Iran's people as well as the leaders who claim to represent them.