June 25, 2009 | Forbes

Where’s The U.N. On Iran?

People are being killed in Iran. Where is the U.N.? What institution could be better positioned to relieve President Obama of his worries about America standing up unilaterally for freedom in Iran? The U.N. is the self-styled overlord of the international community, committed in its charter to promote peace, freedom and “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights.”

Iran's regime is already in gross violation of a series of U.N. sanctions over a nuclear program the U.N. Security Council deems a threat to international peace. The same regime has now loosed its security apparatus of trained thugs and snipers on Iranians who have been, in huge numbers, demanding their basic rights. Surely top U.N. officials such as Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon should be leading the charge for liberty and justice, with the strongest possible criticism and measures against the Iranian regime.

But that's not happening. While Iranian protesters have been risking their necks to try to rid their country of a malignant despotism, the U.N. has hardly even qualified as voting “present.”

During the upheaval following the disputed results of Iran's June 12 presidential election, Ban confined himself to a grand total of three public utterances on the matter. In the first, on June 15, with pictures of bloodied Iranian protesters already flooding the Internet, Ban told reporters in New York that he was “closely following the situation.” In words so ritually obtuse that they could have been scripted for him by Iran's supreme tyrant, Ali Khamenei, Ban added that he had “taken note of the instruction by the religious leaders that there should be an investigation into this issue.”

The next day, June 16, when asked again about Iran, Ban came up with pretty much the same anodyne answer: “taken note … very closely following … just seeing how the situation will develop.” Other than that, for the next six days, Ban had lots to say–but not about Iran. He sent a message to a meeting in Yekaterinburg, Russia, of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was attending as an observer, having briefly decamped from the upheaval that his own Ayatollah-blessed, irregularity-fraught “re-election” had sparked in Iran.

To this gathering in Russia, where Ahmadinejad posed for the cameras among a lineup of heads of state, Ban dispatched a message full of buzzwords about poverty, climate change and “combined commitment to a peaceful and prosperous common future.” He made no mention of the “situation” in Iran.

Ban also found time for such activities as addressing a seminar on “cyber-hate.” He paid tribute to Gabon's late President Omar Bongo Ondimba. He fretted about the effects of desertification on migration patterns by the year 2050. This past weekend, as the world played and replayed the footage of Iranian protester Neda Agha-Soltan bleeding to death on a street in Tehran, Ban was in Birmingham, England, apparently absorbed in accepting an award at a Rotary International Convention.

Not until June 22 did Ban finally return to the subject of Iran. And even then, Ban did not step forth before the cameras himself. At the regular noon press briefing, Ban's spokeswoman, Michele Montas, delivered a long list of announcements, replete with notices of assorted public service awards, and of the demise of a man who served from 1976 to 1981 as the spokesman for former U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim. There was nothing on Iran.

When the announcements finally ended, the first question she got was about the Secretary General's reaction to the latest news on election oddities and murdered protesters in Iran. She replied only that a statement from Ban was in the works, which she hoped would be ready “in a few minutes.” To a second question on Iran, she said that time was up, and the briefing was over.

Hours later, Ban's office finally issued the promised response on Iran: a one-paragraph statement, “attributable to the Secretary General.” It turned out that while Iran's security forces had been spending day after day beating, shooting and arresting demonstrators, Ban had progressed from keeping an eye on Iran to following the situation with “growing concern,” and had become “dismayed” by the violence.

As U.N. diplomat lingo goes, this is phrasing so tepid it could double as old dishwater. Compare it, for instance, to Ban's statement the next day about the rape of some 20 women at Goma's central prison in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This was a horrible event, but was it more horrible, or of greater import, than Iran's government assaulting and slaughtering its own people? In the Congo case–keep your eye on the nuances–Ban was not merely “dismayed.” He was “deeply distressed.”

Or contrast Ban's lukewarm angle on Iran with his “around-the-clock efforts with world leaders”–as his spokeswoman described it–to produce an immediate ceasefire when Israeli forces went into terrorist-run Gaza last December to try to stop Iranian-backed Hamas from launching rockets into Israel. In that case, Ban declared himself “deeply dismayed,” “deeply alarmed,” and having demanded, urged and condemned, he finally traveled to Gaza.

There, Ban did not wait for any considered inquiry and analysis to unfold. He let fly, condemning Israel for “excessive” use of force, and pronouncing himself incensed that U.N. buildings had been hit–never mind why. He rolled out for the press such phrases as “outrageous, shocking and alarming,” demanded a full investigation and pronounced himself too “appalled” to be able to describe his full feelings.

No such vocabulary or demand has been emanating from Ban's office over the carnage that Iran's government, in order to maintain its monstrously repressive grip, has been inflicting on its own people.

To be fair to Ban, in his statement Monday on Iran, he did spell out that his dismay extends particularly to “the use of force against civilians.” But he didn't mention anything about this force being “excessive.” Perhaps by U.N. lights, the Iranian Basij and rooftop snipers have hit on some eminently proportionate use of force–dismaying to Ban, lethal to an untold number of Iranians, but not worth a denouncement as “outrageous, shocking and alarming.”

Ban, in the second half of his one-paragraph statement on Iran, went on to urge “a stop to the arrests, threats and use of force,” calling on “the government and the opposition to resolve peacefully their differences through dialogue and legal means.” That might be a reasonable notion, were Iran a free society operating with a genuinely democratic system and set of laws. But Iran under the mullahs is a place where they jail women who take off their veils, and hang homosexuals.

Whether disingenuous or simply clueless, Ban, with his morally neutral U.N. mantra, is ignoring the problem that Iran's regime, since its inception 30 years ago, has been grounded not in democratic rule of law, but in rule by diktat and terror. The arrests, threats and force are part of the government's “dialogue.”

Beyond Ban, where is the rest of the U.N. on the showdown and brutal crackdown in Iran? Well, last Friday, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, according to the U.N. News Service, “expressed concern” (though apparently not deep concern). With fastidious attention to the small print, Pillay noted that “the legal basis of the arrests that have been taking place, especially those of human rights defenders and political activists, is not clear.” She may be right; the details right now are not clear. But the big picture certainly is.

What of the 15-member Security Council, which over the past three years has imposed sanctions on Iran, meant to stop its “proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities.” You might suppose that with Iran's government brazenly violating these sanctions, the Security Council would take an interest in the recent tumult within the Islamic Republic. Perhaps the U.S. would be pushing the issue?

Nope. According to a Western diplomat connected with the Security Council, “Iran is not being discussed at the council right now.”

Nor is the General Assembly exactly seized of the matter (as they like to say at the U.N.). The current president of the Assembly is Nicaragua's Miguel D'Escoto Brockman, a former Sandinista and current pal of the Tehran regime. In March D'Escoto made a five-day pit stop in Iran, his visit apparently bankrolled by the Iranian regime. This week he's making use of the U.N.'s headquarters in New York to host a conference on remodeling the global financial system.

What of the U.N. agencies? They have a substantial presence inside Iran, and Iran has a substantial presence inside them. As I've written previously in these columns, Iran sits on the governing boards of an array of U.N. agencies, and is currently chairing the 36-member executive board of the U.N.'s flagship agency, the U.N. Development Program–which as part of its brief serves as coordinator for other U.N. operations in the field. In that capacity, as a UNDP official assures me, Iran does not deal with day-to-day management of the UNDP, but merely exercises “oversight.” On the current “situation” in Iran, the UNDP top official, Administrator Helen Clark, has remained silent.

So, as protesters die in Iran while calling for freedom, where is the U.N.? With Ban Ki-Moon and the crew above manning the mother ship of global diplomacy, the best rejoinder I can come up with is, the further away, the better.

Claudia Rosett, a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column on foreign affairs for Forbes.

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