RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And as Iranians have been pouring into the streets of Tehran, the world and the White House have been watching. President Obama had this message.
President BARACK OBAMA: What I would say to those people who put so much hope and energy and optimism into the political process, I would say to them that the world is watching and inspired by their participation, regardless of what the ultimate outcome of the election was.
MONTAGNE: President Obama, speaking yesterday. Our next guest was the State Department's top negotiator on Iran during the last years of the Bush administration. We called former ambassador Nicholas Burns to get his view on how the Obama administration might approach Iran following this election. Good morning.
Mr. NICHOLAS BURNS (Former U.S. Ambassador; Former Top Negotiator, State Department): Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Now, we've both been listening to the sounds of the protestors in the streets, but first to some news that came in just this morning: Iran's powerful Guardian Council has announced it's ready to recount at least some of the ballot boxes in the election. What do you make of that?
Mr. BURNS: Well, this is certainly a compelling moment in Iran's political history. This is a surprising decision, and it's very dramatic and, of course, it's welcome on the surface. The fact that the Guardian Council - which is pro-establishment and generally pro-government - would agree to recount some of the ballots is a good step forward.
The problem is that Mousavi had asked an entirely new vote, not just that the government - which is the Interior Ministry, which supports Ahmadinejad - would recount some of the ballots in contested areas, but have an entirely new vote. So it's likely to be received positively by some in Iran, but by the reform movement, it will be seen, I think, as a half measure.
And I think it points to the fact that the government is obviously reeling, is what has happened. Yesterday's crowd, as Mike has reported from - Mike Shuster's reported from Tehran - was the largest in Iran since the 1979 revolution. The reform movement has proven to be very different from previous reform movements in Iran's political history, because it encompasses not just young people, not just students, but people of all backgrounds and people of all ages.
And the strength of that movement was made evident yesterday. So I do think it's positive, but I think the government may be deploying a strategy to placate the reformers, to keep them off the streets. But probably, the Guardian Council intends to preserve Ahmadinejad's victory, I'm sorry to say.
MONTAGNE: Ambassador Burns, you've spent years focusing on Iranians. What is your take on how this disputed election is going to affect the chance of talks with Iran?
Mr. BURNS: Well, I think, first of all, the United States has to separate two issues. At some point in the future, there will be an opportunity perhaps to have a negotiation between Iran and the U.S. But the real story now is what's happening inside the country. And I think that the Obama administration has been very effective at separating those two issues.
And yesterday, you saw President Obama essentially say - and I think quite rightly - this is not a dispute for the U.S. to be the center of. It's up to Iranians to decide who Iran's future leaders will be. He said he respects Iran's sovereignty. I think it was important to do that.
MONTAGNE: Well, just looking towards the future, the current situation, does it oddly, perhaps, present the Obama administration with unforeseen benefits, any better leverage?
Mr. BURNS: Well, I think, first of all, President Ahmadinejad would like nothing better than to see a very aggressive series of statements by the United States which try to put the U.S. in the center of this. And I think President Obama is avoiding that, quite rightly.
But he also did something yesterday, which was important - he, President Obama. He demonstrated clear sympathy for the reformers.
MONTAGNE: Is that a good thing, though, or a bad thing for the reformers?
Mr. BURNS: Oh, I think the fact that he has been low key about it and the fact that he is saying that denial of rights is - and violence are a concern to him and he was inspired by the reformers, I think it's the right thing to say. The United States has to stand up for - at a moment like this for people who are in the streets aspiring for freedom. But he hasn't gone so far - he, President Obama - to put the United States in the middle.
It's a balancing act. I think the president has been very effective in maintaining that.
MONTAGNE: Ambassador, thank you very much.
Mr. BURNS: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Ambassador Nicholas Burns was the top Iran negotiator under the Bush administration. He now teaches diplomacy and international politics at Harvard University's Belfer Center.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And we're continuing to reach out to Iran with emails and phone calls today. You can read dramatic dispatches from Tehran at npr.org. Just look on the front page for our blog called the Two-Way. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
In an NPR interview, a former Bush administration official says a decision by Tehran to recount some ballots in last week's disputed election is a positive step, but is ultimately aimed at keeping incumbent leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power.
The top U.S. negotiator on Iran under President Bush said Tuesday that a decision by Tehran to recount some ballots in last week's disputed election is a positive step, but that it is ultimately aimed at keeping incumbent leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power.
Former ambassador Nicholas Burns, in an interview for NPR's Morning Edition, also praised the current administration's handling of the crisis. Burns said President Obama has been doing an "effective job" of talking up the moderates while making it clear that Washington would not meddle in Iran's internal affairs.
"President Ahmadinejad would like nothing better than to see an aggressive series of statements from the United States that would put the U.S. in the center of this, and I think President Obama is avoiding that quite rightly," Burns said.
Obama said he respects Iran's sovereignty and that "this is not a dispute for the U.S. to be the center of. It's up to Iranians to decide who Iran's future leaders will be," Burns said.
Obama "demonstrated clear sympathy for the reformers," the former ambassador said. "I think the fact that he's been low-key about it and the fact that he is saying denial of rights and violence are of a concern to him, and that he was inspired by the reformers, is, I think, the right thing to say."
Burns' review of Obama's handling of the situation was largely echoed by Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, the senior GOP member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who said Tuesday on CBS's The Early Show that it would be unwise for the United States to get any more involved than it is.
However, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), appearing on NBC's Today show, charged that Obama wasn't taking a tough enough stance. McCain, the president's former rival on the campaign trail, said Obama "should speak out that this is a corrupt, flawed sham of an election and that the Iranian people have been deprived of their rights."
The former ambassador's comments came on the same day that Iran's Islamic leadership, known as the Guardian Council, said it is prepared to conduct a limited recount of disputed presidential elections. Iran's state radio also reported earlier Tuesday that seven people were killed during clashes in the Iranian capital the previous day — the first official confirmation of deaths linked to the largest protests and street battles since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
In Friday's vote, Ahmadinejad was declared the victor over his popular reformist rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi. Burns called the recount a "surprising decision" that points to the fact that the government is "obviously reeling" at the backlash from the election, seen by many as having been rigged to keep Ahmadinejad in power.
"That fact that the Guardian Council, which is pro-establishment and generally pro-government, would agree to count some of the ballots is a good step forward," Burns said. "But I think the government may be deploying a strategy to placate the reformers, to keep them off the streets, but probably the Guardian Council intends to preserve Ahmadinejad's victory, I am sorry to say."
He said the reform movement made up of Mousavi's supporters is fundamentally different from reform movements of the past.
Mousavi's supporters are "not just young people, not just students, but people of all backgrounds and people of all ages. The strength of that movement was made evident" during Monday's protests, he said.