President Obama said many of the right things as the turmoil surrounding the outcome of the Iranian election unfolded. After Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, spoke Friday, Obama has an opportunity to make an additional crucial point.
In his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo this month, Obama impressed Muslims with his understanding of Islam. He quoted from the Quran and reminded his audience of his Muslim heritage. Never before has an American president expressed such cultural and religious awareness.
As protests mounted in Iran after the election, Obama rightly backed away from inserting the United States into the dispute. He said he was "deeply troubled" by the violence and said the right to peaceably dissent was a universal value.
As the protests continued, violence abated.
Many Iranians who were so hopeful and so engaged in the election now fear their votes did not count, Obama said. "And particularly to the youth of Iran, I want them to know that we in the United States do not want to make any decisions for the Iranians, but we do believe that the Iranian people and their voices should be heard and respected."
Khamenei indicated that the voices have been heard and respected.
All that set the right tone.
Friday, Khameini reaffirmed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the winner. And he made clear that this election was not a referendum on the foundations of the Islamic Republic. All of the candidates support it.
But he also said that opponents who did not believe the election results should challenge them through legal means.
This provides a chance for Obama to show Iranians that he understands their Islamic Republic and how it developed -- and to lay the groundwork for negotiations once the election dispute is resolved.
A majority of Iran 's population is Shiite Muslims. Since its founding in the 7th century, Shiites have based their political theory on the cardinal concept of the legitimacy of the ruler.
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was in part to depose the shah, who had come to power in 1953 after a CIA-sponsored coup overthrew democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossaddeq. And in part it was an opportunity to craft an Islamic state with a legitimate ruler according to Shia political theory.
After the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took the Shiite concept of the Rightly Guided Imam and created the idea of Vilayet-i-faqih, which means the rule of the jurisprudent. This institutionalizes the Islamic rule of law. The Council of Guardians serves to ensure these principles.
Before the election, the Iranian government allowed an unprecedented degree of political discourse so that the election would establish a legitimate ruler.
Now, on the streets of Teheran and undoubtedly in high political circles behind the scenes, Iranians are asking themselves, has this election confirmed the legitimacy of the ruler?
President Obama has rightly said that his administration will not interfere with the internal affairs of Iran, unlike what happened in 1953. Now he has an opportunity to have a greater positive impact on Iranian-American relations.
He should say his administration respects many of the guiding principles of the 1979 revolution -- to establish a government that expresses the will of the people; a just government, based on the idea of Vilayet-i-faqih, that establishes the rule of law.
His administration understands that what is going on now in Iran is an attempt by the Iranian people to live up to their own ideals. Just as American democracy developed over many years, the United States recognizes that this election is part of the process of an evolving democracy in Iran. That would send a resounding message to the Iranian presidential candidates and their supporters that President Obama understands the ideals of the Islamic Republic and that he seeks a peaceful and harmonious Iran that has the unquestioned support of a majority of its population.
As a result, President Obama may well find that no matter who is elected president of Iran, the chances of a negotiated rapprochement between the two countries would be far greater than it has been in the past 30 years.
Such a rapprochement will help resolve conflicts from Palestine and Israel through Iraq and Afghanistan to Pakistan where, contrary to popular belief, Iran and the United States have many common interests.
Abdul Rauf is chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, an independent, non-partisan and multi-national project that seeks to use religion to improve Muslim-West relations. (www.cordobainitiative.org). He is the author of "What's Right with Islam is What's Right with America."