U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman (Independent, Connecticut) talked to RFE/RL today about the bill that he and Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona) are introducing in Congress that targets Iranian officials who have committed human right abuses. Lieberman told RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher that the United States has a "principled responsibility" to help the people of Iran fight back against what he called the “fanatical and repressive” regime that is denying them their basic human rights.
RFE/RL: Senator Lieberman, you and Senator McCain are the chief authors of a new bill being introduced today in the Senate that would require President Obama to draw up a list of Iranian officials who have committed human rights abuses since the June election, and then impose punishments on them. What sort of penalties does the bill lay out and what do you hope the measure will accomplish?
Senator Joseph Lieberman: Today Senator McCain and I, joined by a broad group of colleagues in the Senate -- bipartisan, across the ideological spectrum -- are going to introduce targeted sanctions legislation, and this is different, this is not about Iran's nuclear weapons program. This is targeted at the individuals in the Iranian government who have perpetrated human rights abuses against the Iranian people.
And specifically, the bill will require President [Barack] Obama to draw up and then periodically update a list of individuals who have committed human rights abuses and then [it] imposes targeted sanctions on them. For instance, putting in place a visa ban on them or restricting their ability to conduct financial transactions. And also making the list of human rights abusers publicly available so that other governments, and just ordinary people around the world, including in Iran, can know exactly who these freedom-suppressing people are.
RFE/RL: So your hope for this legislation is to expose these people and the abuses they've committed and to punish them in ways that involve restricting their travel and so forth?
Lieberman: That is absolutely correct. And this is an expression, as I say, from a very broad group of senators, Republicans, Democrats, Independents, conservatives, liberals, [and] moderates. I think we're really speaking for the American people in crying out against the human rights abuses by the Iranian government and telling both the Iranian government and the people of Iran -- the protesters, the Green Movement -- ‘We see you, we hear you.’ In the case of the people of Iran, the protesters, we stand with you.
In the case of the government, which is suppressing the people's rights, [it's saying] we are going to take action against you because what you are doing in suppressing the rights of your people violates a series of international covenants that Iran has signed, including the covenant most particularly on civil and political rights.
RFE/RL: Today's anniversary in Iran has drawn thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators into the streets and, as we've seen before, members of the Revolutionary Guards and Basij Militia to try and brutally stop them. This is a scene the country has seen many times since the June election. How much longer do you see this continuing, and what signs, if any, do you see of the protest movement gaining ground?
Lieberman: I think the fate of the Iranian regime, the fanatical and repressive regime that has governed Iran now for 31 years with increasing brutality, its fate was sealed in the way it handled the people's protest after the unfair election last June.
And this is a tough struggle for the freedom fighters in Iran, as it has always been tough when people stand up and have the courage and principle to stand up against a repressive regime, but in the end, there is no doubt in my mind that the universal demand and yearning for freedom and justice is not going to be extinguished in Iran and ultimately will prevail, as it has prevailed in other places.
So when it happens, we don't know, but I think it is the moral and political obligation of the people of the United States and the people of every other civilized country to stand with the people of Iran when their universal human rights are being suppressed by their own government.
And [it's also our obligation] to say to the government as we negotiate -- or attempt to -- on nuclear weapons development in Iran: How can the rest of the world trust the Iranian regime if you lie to your own people? How can we trust you when you say to the world that you're not suppressing political dissent in your country when we know, because we see it with our own eyes, what you're doing, including now hanging people who are political protesters, jailing thousands who have done nothing more than to express their desire for the freedom that most of the rest of the people on earth enjoy.
I have tremendous regard for the people in Iran who are protesting their government's repression and brutality. There is nothing that separates the people of America from the people of Iran. What separates us only is the government in Iran. And hopefully that will change soon.
RFE/RL: An Iranian scholar in exile recently told a Congressional committee that while Iranians don't want the United States to interfere in their country's internal politics, at this particular moment in history, the desires of the international community and the desires of pro-democracy Iranians are the same, in that both have deep disagreements with the current regime. There's a debate in the White House and Congress, however, over what the United States can and should do to help the opposition Green Movement succeed. What do you think it should be doing?
Lieberman: Well, in the first place, it does seem to me that we have a principled responsibility as signatories to international treaties on civil and political rights to speak loudly when any other signatory to those treaties is violating the rights of its people, as Iran is today. We've done it with other countries and it's not interference. It's upholding the credibility and legitimacy of these international treaties.
Secondly...in my opinion the United States is defined still by its founding documents of 1776. This is a statement that [says] there is a self-evident truth that every human being is endowed by our Creator, by God, with these inalienable rights to life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and that our foreign policy is at its best when we are true to that founding principle. And it is powerfully so in the case of Iran.
So for instance, some of us [in Congress] have sponsored legislation that has provided a significant amount of money to make sure that the ability of the Green Movement in Iran to communicate with each other and the outside world through cell phones, Internet communications, Facebook, etc., is not suppressed by the government of Iran. To me that's not interference. That's standing by our national principles as Americans and it's also standing by the right of the people of Iran to determine their own destiny. That's not interference.
RFE/RL: Earlier this week President Obama announced that even though "the door is still open for negotiation," a new round of international sanctions is being prepared as punishment for Tehran's refusal to prove that its nuclear program is peaceful. The UN has already imposed three sets of sanctions on the Iranian regime. Do you think this one will work, and if so, why?
Lieberman: First let me say that I think President Obama was absolutely right to reach out to Iran and try to engage Iran, but in response to President Obama's extended hand, the regime in Iran has ultimately done nothing but give him a clenched first. It's been a lot of inconsistent comments -- one day seeming to be open to negotiations, the next day closing the fist again.
So I think President Obama's patience has grown thin now with the regime in Iran and he has, sadly, come to the conclusion that the only way to get the attention of [President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad and the others who have put Iran on this course to nuclear weapons development, suppression of its own people, is to impose economic sanctions. In other words, to begin to make the regime hurt.
It's unfortunate but the only way to make diplomacy work here is to put some teeth behind that diplomacy, and it's unfortunate because it's not our chosen course, nor of course is military action, but the consequences of just standing by and letting the regime in Iran go forward are horrific because it will strengthen the forces of extremism and terrorism in the Middle East, it will begin a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, it will end...any hope of peace between Israelis and Palestinians and a two-state solution. So unfortunately, this is the moment we're at and it's not the fault of the United States, it's the [failure of] Iran to take the opportunity that President Obama has given them.
RFE/RL: Is there a message you want to send to the people of Iran?
Lieberman: My message to the people of Iran who may be listening to this broadcast is first one of enormous admiration for the courage you are showing in the face of a government that is repressive and grows more brutal in response to your quest for freedom. Secondly, to say that the people of America stand with you and we hear you, we see you, we will do everything we can to give you the opportunity to determine your own destiny and not to have your destiny be stifled by an extremist government.
So please understand, as tough as the struggle is now, as many who have suffered and even been killed, ultimately your cause -- which is the universal timeless cause of freedom -- will prevail. There will be a new Iran. And I pray to God that it will come as soon as possible.