WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration faces a dilemma over how to respond to Iran's disputed election. Strong criticism could backfire but a muted response leaves an impression of weakness.
So far President Barack Obama and other top U.S. officials have responded cautiously to the disputed vote, which sparked violent protests after hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's was declared the easy victor over ex-Prime Minister Mirhossein Mousavi.
Several analysts said on Monday the White House was in a no-win situation but the best option was to stand back rather inject U.S. views into the Iranian political debate.
The United States also wants to keep open the chance of talking to Iran's government about its nuclear program, which the West suspects is aimed at building a bomb and Tehran says is to generate electricity.
"The U.S. ability to do harm in Iranian politics is much greater than doing good," said Middle East expert Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Obama told reporters on Monday he was "deeply troubled" by the post-election violence but made clear Washington did not want to become a "handy political football" in the election dispute.
"It is up to Iranians to make decisions about who Iran's leaders will be. We respect Iranian sovereignty and want to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran," he said, adding Washington wanted to pursue a "tough, direct" dialogue with Tehran.
But domestically, Obama is under pressure from conservatives who want a more forceful response and are skeptical over the engagement policy.
Republican Senator John McCain, Obama's opponent in last year's U.S. presidential election, called the re-election of Ahmadinejad "corrupt" and urged the United States to "speak out strongly."
Representative Mike Pence, the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, criticized Obama for not speaking more forcefully.
"It is appropriate for the leader of the free world at this time to speak a word of encouragement to those dissidents in the street," Pence said.
But Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, said publicly siding with pro-democracy protesters could undermine them and work against U.S. interests.
"The only option is to sit back and let them play it out," she said. "I think that concern being expressed is perfectly appropriate but you don't want Washington on its high horse."
At the State Department on Monday, spokesman Ian Kelly said the United States was still assessing the situation in Iran after the election but reiterated that Washington still wanted to look for opportunities to speak to Tehran.
But the election turmoil is likely to complicate plans for engagement, which reversed decades of U.S. efforts to isolate Tehran.
"An Iran in which the government is seen to be illegitimate will be more difficult to engage with," said former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel.
The disputed election and subsequent violence has firmed the resolve of opponents of Obama's outreach policy.
Danielle Pletka, an analyst with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said the United States needed to be even more circumspect over how it dealt with Iran, particularly when the legitimacy of its government was being questioned.
"We will need even more proof of their bona fides. Surely a government willing to cheat its own people is more willing to cheat the United States," she said.
Former Bush administration official Elliott Abrams said that for now the United States should support the Iranian people rather than trying to reach out to its government.
"In the longer run, I think we take a lesson from Ronald Reagan who both engaged with the Soviets and said publicly that they would end up on the ash-heap of history," said Abrams, referring to former U.S. President Reagan.
Editing by Alan Elsner and Eric Beech