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Year Of Iranian Discontent Continues Into 2010

Unrest in Iran continued Monday for a third consecutive day. There were reports of isolated clashes between anti-government protesters and riot police.

Sunday's demonstrations were the most violent since those that followed the disputed presidential election last June. At least nine people were killed.

In 2009, the Islamic government of Iran has seen its greatest challenge in 30 years. Iran has also been one of the most difficult international issues for the Obama administration.

In the center of Tehran on Sunday, mayhem erupted. Police used tear gas and truncheons to break up the crowds. Protesters stoned the police, burning police cars and motorcycles.

Some police shot into the crowds, leaving a reported nine people dead in Tehran and in the northwest city of Tabriz, according to reports on opposition Web sites. State-controlled television put the death toll at five.

It has been nearly seven months since the presidential election in June that set off the conflict, and it does not appear as if the challenge to Iran's leadership is going to end — making Iran a bigger and bigger problem for the Obama administration.

Engagement Stalled

President Obama came into office committed to a policy of engagement with Iran. As the administration slowly set about reviewing its policy, nothing happened until Iran's election. Afterward, it became even more difficult for the administration to establish a workable policy, says Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"There was perhaps too high of expectations on the United States to unilaterally change the relationship with an engagement approach. I think we are now realizing that we can lead the Iranians to the dance floor, but we can't force them to tango," Sadjadpour says.

Since September, the administration has actively pursued a policy of engagement, even as Iranian police attempted to batter the protesters into submission. Talks with Iran, involving the European Union and Russia, began in September, focused on Iran's nuclear activities. New revelations about secret facilities raised greater suspicions that Iran is pursuing a covert nuclear weapons capability.

Those discussions held out some initial promise, but have stalled. The Obama administration gave Tehran until the end of this year to respond. Now, the talk has turned to the possibility of new sanctions, as evidenced by recent remarks from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"We have reached out. We have offered the opportunity to engage in meaningful, serious discussions with our Iranian counterpart. We've been at the table, but I don't think anyone can doubt that our outreach has produced very little in terms of any kind of positive response from the Iranians," Clinton said.

The eruption of protest in Iran took everyone by surprise, including Iran's conservative leadership. Currently, there is no clear agreement among them on how to handle the challenge to their regime.

That has complicated the issue for the U.S., says Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University.

"The Obama administration really didn't count on this — the fact that Iran was suddenly going to enter into a period in which the infighting was going to be this intense, and where you wondered if anybody was really in control," Sick says.

Beyond The Nuclear Agenda

As the year progressed, more and more Iran analysts turned critical of the administration's approach. The criticism heard most often: that sticking solely to the nuclear issue with Iran is too narrow an agenda.

Muhammad Sahimi, who writes for the Web site Tehran Bureau, says it's time to put human rights on the agenda with Iran as well.

"The United States and Iran should negotiate, but as part of the negotiation, violations of human rights in Iran should be on the table," Sahimi says.

Some, especially inside the administration, are skeptical of this approach. But Sahimi says it can work.

"There is a perception in the West that the mullahs don't care about the image that they have in the West. But that's actually not true. The mullahs, because they claim they speak for Islam, they actually care about the perception that people have. And that can be taken advantage of," he says.

Hardening Approach In Tehran

There's no doubt Iran's government has been severely weakened by the domestic turmoil, as well as by revelations about its secret nuclear activities. But in recent weeks, it seems that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and those around him have hardened their approach, says Sadjadpour.

"And so I think the big challenge the Obama administration faces is how do you reach a modus vivendi with a regime which needs you as an adversary," he says.

Sadjadpour has his own answer — you can't.

"As long as Ayatollah Khamenei remains supreme leader and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remains president, I find it highly unlikely that we're ever going to be able to sign a sheet of paper with this particular Iranian government which allays our suspicions that Iran has abandoned its nuclear weapons ambitions, and is now ready to play a more constructive role in the Middle East."

So the year ends for Iran with the likelihood of more conflict — both domestically and with the international community — in the new year.

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