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(photo credit: AP)
WASHINGTON - Those who expected US President Barack Obama to rethink his program of reaching out to Teheran following Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's anti-Israel diatribe in Geneva on Monday are the ones who need to think again.
Sure enough, despite Ahmadinejad calling Israel a "most cruel and oppressive, racist regime" at the UN-sponsored World Conference Against Racism, the US quickly made clear the incident would not change its policy.
"I found many of the statements that President Ahmadinejad made, particularly those directed at Israel, to be appalling and objectionable," Obama told reporters Tuesday. "But we are going to continue to take an approach that tough, direct diplomacy has to be pursued without taking a whole host of other options off the table."
Obama has committed to outreach and openness toward the Islamic republic - using that characterization, which analysts take as a message that he doesn't seek regime change, again at Tuesday's press conference - despite knowing full well how the government there behaves.
As Obama himself pointed out, "The rhetoric is not new. This is the kind of rhetoric that we've come to expect from President Ahmadinejad."
In fact, his inflammatory remarks Monday were not the most extreme Iranian provocation in recent days - that distinction would go to the sentencing of American journalist Roxana Saberi to eight years in prison for espionage, following a trial behind closed doors that reportedly lasted well less than one day.
Indeed, if Iranian signals were to be the standard for whether Obama would pursue his policy of outreach, he likely would have abandoned it by now.
Instead, Obama has said that he is committed to pursuing engagement. He now intends to prove that he's as good as his word, and won't let Iranian actions derail him.
Such a stance provides fodder for critics, many of them wary of the concept of talking to Iran in the first place. But his defenders also can make a case for his approach.
For starters, there is the desire that a strong reaffirmation of Obama's outreach policy in the face of Iranian posturing will sufficiently reassure Iranian leaders that the US is serious about diplomacy; the context heightens the attempt to build a nascent trust that could allow meaningful negotiations to take place.
There is also the matter of winning over the Iranian public so that they will stand behind efforts to improve relations - so that such a policy is helpful to Iranian leaders from the standpoint of domestic politics - as the next generation in Iran is perceived as much more pro-American and interested in dialogue with the West than are the mullahs.
At the same time, Obama's audience is bigger than Iran. He wants to show the world that he is sincere about outreach. Partly that's because it gains him points with an international community that prefers to see diplomacy rather than confrontation with Teheran, and partly because he wants them to feel that he has made a good-faith effort to try diplomacy so they will be more open to other types of action if and when negotiations fail. The idea is that they will then be better partners on other strategies, like sanctions.
An important piece of this is that Iran be seen as the intransigent one, not the United States -- that the former assume the mantle of the reactive player who is quickly offended and not genuinely interested in diplomacy.
Obama aimed to paint that picture Tuesday. "There's no doubt that the kind of rhetoric you saw from Ahmadinejad is not helpful. In fact, it is harmful - but not just with respect to the possibility of US-Iranian relations; I think it actually undermines Iranians' position in the world as a whole." And in that frame at least, America did seem to have some success this week.
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, who earlier this month branded former US president George W. Bush's Iran policy "a combination of ignorance and arrogance" that missed countless opportunities for halting Teheran's nuclear progress, on Monday praised Obama's overtures - and suggested that the onus was on Teheran to accept them.
"I am extremely pleased with the reversal in the policy of the United States from one of confrontation to one of dialogue and mutual respect," AFP quoted him as saying. "I have been telling my Iranian colleagues that you must reciprocate and also put [out] your hand." While he called Iran more "moderate" in recent weeks, he also noted that it could do more by allowing IAEA inspectors greater access.
"They can allow us to visit certain facilities that we want to visit, like the heavy water reactor. And they have to come up with their own ideas of how to build confidence," he said.
It might be of little comfort to Obama's critics, but for ElBaradei's part, "I am very optimistic of this totally new approach and I hope it will work."