June 16, 2009

THE TROUBLE WITH THE RECENT IRANIAN ELECTIONS

MR. CARDIN:  Mr. President, as Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, which has had decades of experience monitoring election and promoting democracy and human rights, I would like to take this moment to speak on a troubling matter that has filled headlines around the world in the last few days.

We have all seen the images. Violence and mass protests are erupting across Iran following the hasty vote count of a deeply flawed presidential election process in that country. Yet another unfortunate chapter is unfolding before our eyes that reinforces Iran's record as a police state and totalitarian regime more concerned with keeping its tight grip on power than yielding to the will of the people. 

I stand with President Obama calling for the government to exercise restraint and the violence to end.  Regrettably, at least seven people have been killed and countless others injured. We may never know the true results of this election, given the lack of international monitoring.  But what we do know is that in the last few days we have witnessed tens of thousands of Iranians raise their voice in protest to ensure that their vote meant something.

On Friday, voters in Iran lined up in unprecedented numbers to choose their next president.  I, like many others, was dismayed on Saturday to hear the ruling clerics rush to announce that Ahmadinejad had won re-election by a large margin. Regardless of the limited official scope of his duties, President Ahmadinejad's consistent pattern of noxious remarks and his belligerent attitude inject understandable tension around the Middle East and beyond.  He has used the presidential podium to instigate conflict with the international community, pursue acquisition of nuclear weapons capabilities, and spew hatred and intolerance toward Israel and the United States.

I cannot say and will not say what could have been or should have been if any other candidate was elected, but there is no doubt whatsoever as to Ahmadinejad's unfitness as a leader.

Equally troubling were the almost immediate reports coming from Tehran and elsewhere around Iran that there were deep flaws in this election. Elections do not equal democracy, nor do they guarantee that the will of the people will be reflected in their government. But this was not a free and fair election from the start. 

In Iranian Presidential elections, only a select group of candidates approved by a 12-person Council of Guardians are eligible to run.  The Iranian regime, headed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei continues to severely restrict civil liberties including freedom of speech, expression, assembly, and association.  Freedom to discuss ideas without threat of oppression is a fundamental human right that is essential to a government truly reflecting the will of its people.  This freedom is absent in Iran.  Typically, Iranian elections and public expressions are carefully monitored and manipulated by the ruling regime to prevent challenges to their authority. 

The last few days we have seen something different. The tens of thousands of people lining the streets of Tehran - in an incredible rebuttal to the ruling powers - want to know that the votes that they cast are counted properly. The deliberate lack of transparency in the vote tabulation and the blatant attempts to block mass communications among citizens, particularly the youth, are too glaring to ignore. Even the Supreme Leader has been forced to backtrack on his immediate approval of the results and has called for at least the appearance of a recount in some disputed areas.

Americans know something about wanting to have their votes counted accurately.  The difference between our two nations is  when the results of a U.S. election were in dispute, the world spotlight shined bright on the process and the people involved resolved the conflict peacefully. Transparency and openness is not a hallmark of Iranian elections.

Even before the presidential election took place, Iran's totalitarian regime blocked personal communications like texting and access to the Internet. Media have been confined to Tehran, if they haven't been asked to leave the country. The regime's ongoing attempts to curtail communication and silence protests - often with brutal force - demonstrate the regime's fear of losing a grip on power.

Allegations of a fraudulent vote count are a symptom of a regime that has survived by mixing select elements of democracy into an authoritarian power structure that oppresses its people.  On June 12, the people of Iran did not vote for the Supreme Leader of their country.  Under the current system, Khamenei and his supporters will continue to dictate policy to the President of Iran, regardless of who that president is and whatever policy decisions the president is authorized to make. 

The people of Iran want their voices to be heard and they should be assured that the world is listening.  I urge those in power in Iran also to listen and implement the reforms necessary to allow the will of the people to be expressed.
 
I look forward to a future when the people of Iran have an opportunity for a free and fair election of leaders of their choosing. It is my sincere hope that one day this vision will be realized, and the voice of the Iranian people will truly be heard.