A world wary of Iran's nuclear program reacted cautiously Saturday to hardline leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election. Some expressed hope that the Islamic republic's president will soften his trademark defiance and warm to recent U.S. overtures.
For the volatile Middle East and the West alike, the stakes were high.
Iran is a key economic player in the region, a perceived threat to Israel's national security - and a major worry for the U.S. and allies who fear Tehran is trying to build an atomic weapon.
Ahmadinejad's announced landslide victory over his reformist opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, in a tumultuous election "will increase American pressure" to engage Iran diplomatically, said Eyal Zisser, an analyst with the Tel Aviv-based Moshe Dayan Center.
President Barack Obama has offered dialogue with Iran after a nearly 30-year diplomatic freeze between the two nations. Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful and geared solely toward generating electricity; U.S. officials contend it's trying to enrich uranium to weapons grade.
Privately, many diplomats at the International Atomic Energy Agency - the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog - said they expected little change regardless of who wound up in charge of Iran's government.
That is because Iran's main policies and any major decisions, such as possible talks with Washington or nuclear policies, rest with the ruling clerics headed by Iran's unelected supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"On the nuclear question, it's very clear that the ultimate decision maker is Ayatollah Khamenei," said Mohsen Milani, an expert on Iran at the University of South Florida. At best, he said, Ahmadinejad plays a subtle and nuanced role.
"The central question of security or war and peace is not in his domain. It's unambiguously in the domain of the supreme leader," Milani said.
And more Ahmadinejad spells less change, said former President Jimmy Carter.
"I don't think it will have any real effect because the same person will be there as has been there," Carter said after meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "I think this election has bought out a lot of opposition to his policies in Iran, and I'm sure he'll listen to those opinions and hopefully moderate his position."
Ahmadinejad's new mandate may allow Israel to briefly deflect U.S. pressure to endorse the creation of a Palestinian state and freeze the construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, said Yossi Alpher, a former intelligence official and government adviser.
Ahmadinejad has outraged Israelis and many others worldwide by publicly challenging the Jewish state's right to exist.
"The re-election of Ahmadinejad demonstrates the increasing Iranian threat," said Danny Ayalon, Israel's deputy foreign minister.
Arab League chief Amr Moussa said he hoped Ahmadinajad's second term would boost cooperation to achieve peace and rid the region of weapons of mass destruction. "I believe the situation could move in the direction of quieter talks and understanding. Dialogue is the name of the game," he said.
Iraq's government said it hoped the Iranian leader will seek reconciliation with other countries to promote peace in the region.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Iraq is ready to help build friendly relations based on mutual interests. Iraq's Shiite-led government faces a delicate balancing act in maintaining close ties to both the U.S. and Iran.
"We hope that the new term of the Iranian president will begin a period of reconciliation with all countries that have no friendly relations with it," al-Dabbagh said Saturday in a clear reference to the U.S.
Dawood al-Shirian, a prominent Saudi columnist, said Ahmadinejad's victory was no surprise.
"This reminds me of (George W.) Bush's second victory at the polls," he said. "The Iranians feel they are under regional and international threat and therefore they do not want change at this time."
"Plus their nuclear program is a source of pride for them and they believe that Ahmadinejad is the one who won't deprive them of it," he added.
Al-Shirian said Ahmadinejad's win "won't necessarily be a bad thing" for Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf. "There are open channels with Ahmadinejad. They know him, and it's better to deal with someone they know," said al-Shirian.
And Obama's conciliatory new approach could soften Ahmadinejad's defiance.
"Ahmadinejad cannot continue on the same belligerent path," he said. "There will be a change in language and approach."
Mousavi, Ahmadinejad's opponent, had advocated closer Iranian ties to the U.S. Perhaps not surprisingly, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez - a frequent critic of U.S. foreign policy - rushed to declare his support for the incumbent.
"In President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad we have one of the greatest allies on this earth," Chavez said at an oil summit in the Caribbean.
Syrian President Bashar Assad congratulated Ahmadinejad and "expressed his confidence in continuing friendly relations and strengthening cooperation," Syria's official news agency SANA reported.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)