Obama and the Ayatollah

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared today that the time for protest is past.

Two weeks after his landmark address in Cairo, where he honored traditional Islam and extolled engagement with modern Islam, President Barack Obama finds himself in a conundrum. Determining what to do about Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who just told the people of Iran, in an unusual nationally-televised sermon at the end of Friday prayers, to stop acting like they live in a democracy.

It's a particularly tricky question for Obama, because he has an unusual dual role to play: Inspirational global icon and president of the United States.

Obama's speech to the Muslim world two weeks ago in Cairo positioned him as a new kind of American leader.

As the president of the United States, it's Obama's job to figure out the needs of America and go about meeting them.

As a global icon, he is expected to inspire.

In 2007, as a still underdog candidate for president, Obama identified several targets he was going to pursue as president with the very troublesome Islamic Republic of Iran. He would directly engage it, for several purposes. To help stabilize the situation in Iraq, making possible the American troop withdrawal. To gain assistance for the American effort in Afghanistan. To cut back Iran's involvement with terrorist groups. To prevent Iran from developing a viable nuclear weapon.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who opposed Obama's engagement with Iran during the Democratic presidential primaries, talks about the situation.

This was a seemingly radical move, departing from decades of American dogma after the fall of the shah, the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini, and the bitter American embassy hostage crisis. Virtually all Republicans denounced it, as did then Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. Who is now, in one of history's delicious ironies, carrying out the policy as Obama's secretary of state. The fact that the Bush/Cheney Administration was privately trying to work with Iran to stabilize Iraq was just one of those major hypocrisies in American political life.

In a nutshell, that's Obama's agenda with Iran, which he is pursuing no matter who is the president there.

The widespread assumption before the Iranian election on June 12th was that the rather sinister President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would continue to be the president. That's the good working assumption today, too. I assume that President Obama and company have much the same plans now as they did the last few years. But something's changed.

The difference now is that there is a highly mobilized and visible reformist tendency in Iran, much friendlier to America under Obama than it would be America under McCain, that produced a big vote for the most moderate presidential candidate and is not afraid to stand up in the streets against an entrenched theocracy.

With the Iranian regime cracking down on journalists, we're relying on dramatic images and communiques delivered by sources hard to verify on YouTube and Twitter.

Was it a winning vote? Who knows?

While Iran is modernizing, phone usage still lags, making polling problematic. And Ahmadinejad, while he's popular among the more traditionally devout, also sports a contemporary style and reportedly won his presidential debates with top challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi, who was prime minister under Khomeini and is now more of a modernist, and the other two candidates.

Still, whatever the facts, the impression I've developed, along with apparently most everyone else, is that Ahmadinejad's immediately declared landslide victory stinks to high heaven and that a highly legitimate reformist movement is in danger of being forcibly put down.

Obama the inspirational icon is expected to speak up about this sort of thing. Here is a modern Islam, an iPod Islam, an Islam he engaged in his Cairo address two weeks ago, which was well received around the world.

Al Jazeera reports that Khamenei is in the midst of a power struggle at the top of the Iranian state.

Of course, if Obama does speak up aggressively about what's going on in Tehran and other cities in Iran, he risks playing right into Supreme Leader Khamenei's hands. The ayatollah, according to Al Jazeera and other sources, is, along with Ahmadinejad, engaged in a power struggle with other elements at the top of the Iranian power structure.

Stronger statements from Obama, who can't buy a hamburger without a weirdly heightened level of interest, might actually backfire. "The Great Satan" is telling Iran what to do, again. Already, in today's address, Khamenei blamed Britain and America for inciting the unrest.

Meanwhile, according to multiple reports, the Revolutionary Guard is taking over security in Tehran, where the opposition is expected to mount another protest on Saturday. Khamenei says that the time for protest is past. What will happen? And is there anything Obama can do about it?