What Should Obama Do With Election Fraud in Iran?

by Roger Alford

I am watching with fascination the Iranian protesters respond to the apparent election fraud in Iran. There are so many wonderful new media sources that it is difficult to keep up with the developments. Here’s one old media outlet that provides a good list of new media sources.

President Obama is in a pickle. Right now he is the most popular politician in the world and one cannot help but imagine the temptation to intervene and lend his powerful voice to those seeking a reversal of their stolen fortunes. But there are two little problems, one policy and the other law. As for policy, Iranians long remember the United States’ involvement in the 1953 overthrow of the democratically-elected Mohammed Mosaddeq. In his Cairo speech Obama mentioned as much, stating that “In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.” If the United States is perceived to be publicly promoting the removal of Ahmadinejad, it could do more harm than good.

As for law, the United States has expressly promised to stay out of matters such as fraudulent Iranian elections. In one of the most unusual international law commitments I have ever read, the United States in the 1981 Algiers Accords has pledged “that it is and from now on will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran’s internal affairs.” Failure to comply with this obligation could result in a claim filed by Iran against the United States before the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal.

Perhaps Obama has already done what he could. Perhaps his Cairo speech resonated with the Iranian people more than we know, beckoning them to pursue their current path of peaceful protests. Recall his words less than two weeks ago, “America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people.”

The best one can hope for is for the United States to quietly work with its friends and enemies to ensure that there was a free and fair election in Iran, that the people have a right to free speech, peaceful protest, and a free press (which is to say, access to new media). In other words, the Obama Administration can do precious little. Others with closer connections to Iran can and should step in and provide leadership, but I have little hope that they will. It may well be that we are all bystanders in the greatest peaceful revolution since fall of the Berlin Wall. I hope so, but I doubt it.


2 Responses

  1. There is indeed “precious little” the Obama Administration can or should do. As for the rest of us, well, some might take advantage of these inspirational events to learn a bit more about their socio-political and historical context. In addition, we might think afresh about Muslims and democratic theory and praxis. I’ve attempted to initiate or facilitate both endeavors at the Ratio Juris blog and I hope Opinio Juris readers will take the time to visit.   

  2. I’ve since added a third post on “Islam and constitutionalism.” 

    Thanks Roger.

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