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Memo to the "Do Something" Brigade

The Rift in Iran

by NADIA HIJAB

The Guardian Council’s conclusion that there were "discrepancies" but no major fraud in the June 12 Iranian presidential elections reaffirms Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the winner but does little to heal the bitter rift over the election conduct and results. The only clarity in this non-transparent process is that the people of Iran need support to withstand the post-election crackdown — and that America and Europe are ill-placed to provide it.

If they really want to help the citizens of Iran, Western leaders and governments have two options: to respect Iran’s sovereignty while speaking up for human rights, and to take steps to restore the moral authority of the United Nations.

In walking the fine line of respect for sovereignty as well as for human rights, president Barack Obama has — so far — shown himself more mindful than Congress (and Europe) of the West’s terrible track record in the Middle East.

The "do something" brigade should take note that fine-sounding words can have devastating repercussions. One has only to think back to the spring of 1991 when Iraq’s Shia and Kurds rebelled against Saddam Hussein. They thought he had been greatly weakened by his expulsion from Kuwait. And they responded to George W. Bush’s call to rise up and force "the dictator to step aside."

Saddam, ruthless as ever, crushed the rebellions, killing tens of thousands of Iraqis and displacing hundreds of thousands. America and its allies didn’t do much about it. Worse, they maintained a harsh sanctions campaign that de-developed Iraq for 12 long years.

The Iranians don’t need this kind of help.

What they do need is a forceful emphasis on human rights, including freedom of speech and assembly, and, even more urgently now, fair trials. Unfortunately, here, too, Western governments lack credibility not just because of their past colonial adventures, but also because they violate human rights in the region today.

Britain, for example, backed America’s illegal war in Iraq that has so far led to over a million dead and four million displaced Iraqis. Former prime minister Tony Blair, who led Britain into that war, may finally be held to account now that he has to testify publicly in his country’s war inquiry.

The West’s credibility is also seriously undermined because of its inaction regarding Israel’s daily violations of the most basic Palestinian human rights in full public view.

Given their checkered history and double standards, America and Europe will find that their selective support of human rights does not carry weight in most of the world.

Thus, the second and, really, the only option to help Iranians — and other peoples trapped in situations where rights are trampled — is to begin to restore the United Nations to the more neutral stature it had before America’s war on Iraq.

As an inter-governmental organization, the United Nations has never been free of manipulation by its now 192 member states, especially the five veto-wielders. But the organization still had moral authority until the Bush administration pulled it into Iraq after his March 2003 invasion.

In a terrible travesty, the United Nations was tasked to provide developmental and political support for a war that was a clear violation of its very own charter. It not only lost credibility but became a target for attack. Its Baghdad offices were blown up in August 2003 and some of its best staff were killed. Today, in many parts of the world, it hunkers down behind the same kinds of barricades needed to protect United States embassies.

The United Nations’ moral authority has also been drained by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Already weak in this sphere after nearly six decades of unimplemented resolutions, it was further diminished when the Bush administration made it just one party in the Quartet, alongside the United States, the European Union, and Russia.

In a damning confidential end-of-mission report in 2007, which was leaked to the media, Alvaro de Soto (the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East peace process) provides a clear analysis of the failures of the process itself as well as the deliberate erosion of the role of the secretary general and the way by which this jeopardizes the United Nations’ capacity to uphold international law — and the safety of its staff. De Soto’s report should be required reading for all students of international affairs.

The restoration of the organization’s moral authority is long overdue. A more neutral and respected United Nations has far more credibility than individual world leaders. Bringing the organization back from the brink will be a slow process, but the sooner it starts, the sooner the world can play a meaningful role in supporting human rights in Iran, in the rest of the battered Middle East, and in other parts of the globe.

NADIA HIJAB is a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.