President Barack Obama went easy on Iran in his big June 4 speech in Cairo so as not to become an issue in last weekend's elections.
Some good it did. The ruling powers in Iran rigidly hostile to the United States and determined to develop nuclear weapons rigged the vote to restore radical Islamist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power.
And Obama's mild statements of "concern" at violence directed against opposition protesters is not likely to win him any points, either, if and when the Iranian regime decides to accept his offer of "unconditional negotiations."
Still, Obama's tactics are understandable. He's betting that the regime headed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will prevail and that he will have to deal with it.
Conceivably, the mass demonstrations being conducted by supporters of opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi could cascade into a revolution such as that which ousted the Shah of Iran in 1979.
More likely, Khamenei would use his military, Revolutionary Guard and Islamic militias to re-enact the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in China if the regime appeared threatened.
Khamenei obviously is hoping to mollify the protesters by promising a review of the election results. The outcome is a foregone conclusion, but the regime clearly aims to have the demonstrations fizzle.
So, the likely result is what Obama anticipated in his outreach address to the Islamic world: that he'd be negotiating with a government run by Khamenei regardless of whether Mousavi or Ahmadinejad were elected president.
In that speech, 6,000 words long, Obama devoted just two paragraphs to Iran, in one of which he acknowledged that the United States "played a role" in the 1953 overthrow of the country's elected government.
He's obviously conscious of that history and the anti-American uses the regime constantly makes of it which is why he went out of his way to say "it's not productive for a United States president to be seen meddling" in Iran's internal affairs.
I'd hope that if he thought there was a chance of really toppling the regime, he would speak out to support the opposition and that he's being restrained out of calculation.
In Cairo, he merely observed that Iran "has played a role" in "acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians," going easy on the activities that led to Iran being designated by the State Department as the world's "most active state sponsor of terrorism."
He also passed up mentioning that, in April, Egyptian authorities arrested 49 Hezbollah terrorists bent on carrying out attacks, along with a handler allegedly trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guard.
And, he went easy on the long record of international findings that Iran has been enriching uranium and evading inspections, surely for the purpose though the regime denies it of producing nuclear weapons.
On the very day Obama reached out to Muslims and spoke of "moving forward without preconditions" toward Iran, Khamenei declared that "the nations in the region hate the United States from the bottom of their hearts."
And, he said, "the new U.S. government seeks to transform this image. I say firmly that this will not be achieved by talking, speech and slogans."
For sure, it makes sense for the United States to at least try "engagement" or "tough" diplomacy, as Obama described it this week. President George W. Bush did so, too, after failing to get anywhere by shunning the regime.
But the difficulties, especially in getting Iran off the nuclear track, are even more abundantly clear after what amounts to a clerical-military putsch in Iran.
Both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are closely tied to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, a fascist- or Communist-like organization that polices internal security, conducts foreign intelligence and terrorist activities, operates businesses and promotes the nuclear weapons program.
Last weekend's voting was barely over when Khamenei declared Ahmadinejad's re-election a "divine miracle."
Ahmadinejad may actually have won a majority, but a 63 percent victory is hard to credit, as is Mousavi's loss among his fellow ethnic Azeris and in his own home village. Those results were meant to humiliate the opposition.
Ahmadinejad, at a victory rally Sunday, vowed to crack down on his political rivals ("dismantle the network of corruption") and never negotiate about Iran's nuclear program with any foreign government.
"That file is shut, forever," he said.
In an interview, Obama's national security adviser, Gen. James Jones, told me that the United States is in a "wait and see posture" on Obama's proposal for dialogue.
Jones underscored Obama's May 19 statement in the presence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Obama is giving Iran until the end of the year to see if it is interested in negotiating in good faith.
"The process can't be an open-ended thing that goes on forever. If, unfortunately, we see no change in (the agenda) we want to talk about, sanctions are always on the table," he said.
Actually, more than sanctions are in play. In his own speech on Sunday, Netanyahu called Iran's nuclear program "the greatest threat facing Israel, the Middle East, the entire world and the human race."
Israel's record in crippling Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 and bombing Syria's North Korea-supplied reactor in 2007 practically guaranteed that Netanyahu will order a strike on Iran if diplomacy fails to stop the nuclear program and he thinks he can retard the weapons threat.
Americans close to Netanyahu say the chances of a strike are "100 percent." Another Mideast expert I regularly test on this question told me, "I used to say 50-50. The Iranian election pushes it to two-to-one."
That's the limiting factor on Obama. He has a year, maybe two, to try direct negotiations with Iran, then sanctions, then perhaps really tough sanctions if he can get other countries to cut off gasoline supplies to Iran to force an end to the nuclear program.
It's worth a try, and it's understandable that Obama would want to be "diplomatic" in approaching Iran. But the election shows that Iran's nuclear faction is dug in. Israel is not going to wait until it develops the instruments of another Holocaust.
(Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.)