As Iranians continue to protest the handling of their country's June 12 presidential election, reaction to the vote continues to pour in from around the world. U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman (Independent, Connecticut) tells RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher in Washington that Iranians shouldn't back down in their demonstrations. Eventually, he says, they will be rewarded with freedom. RFE/RL: What is your personal reaction to the events in Iran? Have you been surprised by the scale and energy of the protests? Senator Joseph Lieberman:
I have been both surprised and encouraged by the scope of the protests. It's really been thrilling to me, and, I would say, thrilling to people throughout America and throughout the world because we understand how much courage it takes to stand in the face of a very repressive regime, which has strength on its side.
But what we're watching in Iran today reminds me very much of what we watched at an earlier time in Budapest and Prague and other places where people have risen up and through the strength of their numbers together have altered the course of their future and of history even against very strong regimes.RFE/RL: The demonstrations in Tehran and other Iranian cities are the largest since the 1979 revolution that deposed the Shah. Only this time, the protesters' target isn't the United States, but the Iranian government itself. What should the United States be doing -- if anything -- as the drama plays out?Lieberman:
I always believed that America is at its best in the world when we are true to our founding values. And the great, central founding value for America is freedom, is human rights, the Declaration of Independence, the self-evident truth that everybody's created equal, and endowed by our Creator, by God, with those inalienable rights to life and liberty. And that means to me that we should extend our clear support to the people of Iran.
What the fraudulent election has reminded the world, I hope, is that the regime in Tehran, which we have understandably been concerned about because of its foreign policy -- its support of terrorism, its development of nuclear weapons -- that it is internally -- its domestic policy -- a terribly repressive regime in which people do not have freedom of expression, that women and other minority groups are suppressed, journalists are harassed, labor organizations have difficult times.
So these demonstrations remind us of that. And to me it just is imperative that the United States make crystal clear without ambivalence that we stand with the people of Iran. Or put it a different way: that we stand for the freedom of the people of Iran.
And that obviously begins, as it does in America's history, with free elections. And every evidence that we have is that the elections that occurred [on June 12] in Iran were not free, were not fair, were fraudulent and should be done again.RFE/RL: Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is cautioning the Obama administration to get no further involved in the disputed election. He says that might generate even further "ill will" between Iran and the United States. Do you agree?Lieberman:
I have great admiration for Senator Lugar, but I really do respectfully but strongly disagree on that. I mean, these are the moments when nations and leaders are tested.
And of course, just as the leaders of Iran are being tested, so too are the leaders of the rest of the countries of the world. And I understand that this regime in Tehran has its own theology, ideology, etc., but it's not unmindful of world opinion. It needs to interact with the world in various ways. Clearly that matters to the people of Iran.
So what I'm saying is that if you begin to find it more important to maintain good relations with a bad regime, you will encourage it to be even worse. And we have to make clear -- hopefully not alone -- that at least the United States, as the leader of the free world, stands with the people of Iran for freedom and free elections. And hopefully if we have other nations -- and there are other nations now willing to say the same, not to bite our tongues at this critical hour -- who's to say what impact that may have, even on the leaders of this regime in Tehran?RFE/RL: If the protesters fail in their attempts to overturn the election results and Mahmud Ahmadinejad gets four more years as president of Iran, should the White House continue to try to engage the Iranian government, as it has said it will? Lieberman:
This is a tough call. But in the end, I think that engagement should go on. It's got to go on with open eyes by the United States, and, as I've said before in regard to nuclear weapons or any other item of discussion, engagement between the U.S. and Iran has to go on with regard to nuclear weapons according to a time schedule. It can't go on forever.
We have to make clear that there have to be some early signs that the Iranians are really willing to negotiate on nuclear weapons and other questions or the engagement will not go forward. But it has to be an honest engagement. And in my opinion, and honest engagement would include, as part of the beginning of interaction between the U.S. and Iran, the leaders of the U.S. saying to the leadership of Iran, "You've got to stop the repression of your people."
One of the Soviet dissidents said during the Soviet period that, you know, any nation that represses its own people -- it doesn't tell the truth to its own people -- will clearly be less trustworthy to the other nations of the world.
I'd also say, and I use now the most recent example, vivid example, of this: President [Ronald] Reagan engaged with the Soviet Union, ultimately to some considerable positive effect. But he didn't do so by silencing his beliefs about how bad the Soviet regime was. Remember, he called it an "evil empire." He said it would end up on the ash heap of history.
So I think we can engage, but engage in a way that does not deprive the United States of the freedom to say to the regime in Tehran [that] its treatment of its own people is simply unacceptable and makes it less trustworthy to us as we hope to improve our relations.RFE/RL: Do you have a personal message you would like to send to the people of Iran?Lieberman:
I appreciate very much, through Radio Farda and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the opportunity to speak to the people of Iran to say that I -- and I believe most everybody here in the United States -- greatly admire your courage, your principle, your willingness to stand with one another against the strength of the repressive regime in Tehran, to argue for a better future for yourselves and your families for freedom. And we are with you. We are with you in spirit, and I hope we can use whatever authority we have to stand with you in other ways.
And I would say this: The people of Iran today are the current bearers of an extraordinary historic legacy, which is really of the Persian people. And that legacy, that history, those values deserve a lot better than the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran have given the country. So, persist.
And I always believe that in the end, history justifies this, that ultimately, if a regime is unacceptable to the people of a country, no matter how hard or how long it takes, ultimately the regime will fall and the people will prevail, and freedom will triumph.
RFE/RL's Full Coverage
Following the disputed reelection of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, supporters of Mir Hossein Musavi have taken to the streets to protest. Click here
for news, blogs, and analysis of the presidential election and aftermath.