It’s Not for Us to Pass Judgment on Fairness of Iran’s Election, Says White House Spokesman

By Patrick Goodenough | August 6, 2009 | 4:50 AM EDT

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (AP Photo)

( – The White House backtracked Wednesday on an earlier statement calling Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Iran’s “elected leader.” Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said it was not up to the administration to say whether Ahmadinejad was legitimate.
“Let me correct a little bit of what I said yesterday,” Gibbs told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Indiana. “I denoted that Mr. Ahmadinejad was the elected leader of Iran. I would say it’s not for me to pass judgment on.”
Gibbs said it is a fact that Ahmadinejad had been inaugurated. He was sworn in for a second four-year term Wednesday. The ceremony in Iran’s parliament was boycotted by opposition leaders who accuse the regime of rigging the June election.
“Whether any election was fair, obviously the Iranian people still have questions about that and we’ll let them decide that,” Gibbs said.
Asked whether the White House recognized Ahmadinejad as Iran’s leader – whether fairly elected or not – Gibbs replied, “It’s not for me or for us to denote his legitimacy, except to acknowledge the fact.”
And in response to a question about whether the White House believed the election was fair, he said, “That’s not for us to pass judgment on.  I think that’s for the Iranian people to decide, and obviously there are many that still have a lot of questions.”
On Tuesday, Gibbs raised eyebrows with a statement that appeared to confer legitimacy on the vote. Asked whether the administration recognized Ahmadinejad as Iran’s legitimate president, he replied, “He’s the elected leader.”
Notwithstanding Gibbs’ remarks Wednesday about not passing judgment on Iran’s election, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed willing to do so. She said during a media appearance in Kenya that the election was “flawed” and praised the “continuing resistance” by opposition supporters.
But, she added, “We don’t always get to deal with the government that we want to. It is not our choice. It is the choice of the individual countries as to how they determine their leadership.” Clinton also said the administration’s offer of engagement with Tehran was still “on the table.”
Judging elections around the world
Despite Gibbs’ reluctance to pass judgment on whether Iran’s election was fair, the administration has not hesitated to air its opinions on elections elsewhere. Since taking office, it has done so on numerous occasions, mostly in cases where it has approved of the process:
President Obama in July congratulated Indonesia’s president for winning a “free and fair” election; and during his visit to Ghana, Obama praised the West African nation for “peaceful transfers of power even in the wake of closely contested elections.”
Vice President Joe Biden in May congratulated Kosovo for its “record of free and fair elections,” and made similar remarks in Ukraine in July.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly in May described India’s just-completed voting exercise as “the largest free and fair election in history.”
He and other department spokesmen also characterized Montenegro’s election in March as “free and fair” and El Salvador’s in March as “very free, fair, and democratic”; described Ecuador’s presidential election in April “peaceful and transparent”; said South Africa’s national poll in April was “transparent and democratic”; described as “peaceful and democratic” Macedonia’s presidential and municipal elections in April; called Mongolia’s presidential election in May “free and peaceful”; and said Lebanon’s legislative election in June was “by every indication … free and fair.”
The administration has also spoken out in cases where the process has been troubling.
On July 23, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev was re-elected with 76 percent of the vote, in an election condemned by monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).
The State Department in a July 27 statement said it shared the observers’ concerns and the OSCE findings “that the election was marred by widespread irregularities including ballot box stuffing, multiple voting, and misuse of government resources.”
Iranians went to the polls on June 12 to choose between only four candidates permitted to run by the Guardian Council, a legal-religious body appointed by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Almost 500 other aspirants who had registered as candidates were turned down.
The official result gave Ahmadinejad a landslide victory, but amid numerous allegations of fraud and suspicious conduct by the electoral authorities supporters of opposition candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi took to the streets in protest. All three candidates who competed against Ahmadinejad rejected the outcome.
A government clampdown in response to the most serious public protests since the Islamic revolution left at least 20 protestors dead – the official death toll, although human rights groups believe the true figure may be much higher – while hundreds were detained.
Khamenei, who had indirectly endorsed Ahmadinejad during the election campaign, refused to consider holding new elections, but agreed to an inquiry by the Guardian Council.
That body at the end of June announced that after a partial recount of votes, the result as originally announced on the night of the election stood – Ahmadinejad had beaten Mousavi by a 63-34 point margin.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow