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Rubio’s claim that Obama would not comment on Iran’s ‘Green Revolution’

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) claims that President Obama would not comment on Iran’s "Green Revolution." (Video: C-SPAN)

“What about when Iran had a fraudulent election in 2009 and the people of Iran took to the street in the famous Green Revolution. You know what the White House said? ‘We’re not going to comment on that election because we’re not going to interfere in the sovereignty of Iran.’ So they will comment on the elections of an ally [Israel], calling the rhetoric of the election divisive, but when Iran has a fraudulent election and kills people that protest against it, we can’t comment.”

–Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), statement on the Senate floor, March 19, 2015

Sen. Rubio, a potential 2016 candidate for the presidency, made this claim while speaking about the White House’s complaints about the rhetoric used by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the final days of the elections.

Netanyahu on March 23 apologized for warning that Arab citizens were voting in “droves,” saying it was “never my intent’ to offend people. So he appears to have responded to the White House pressure. But we are more interested in Rubio’s account of how the Obama White House reacted to the protests after the 2009 Iranian election.

Is it correct that the White House said it would not comment because it did not want to interfere with the sovereignty of Iran?  (Note: Glenn Kessler covered this closely as The Washington Post’s diplomatic correspondent at the time.)

The Facts

Let’s set the stage first. In mid-2009, the Obama administration was relatively fresh, and the president had made efforts to reach out to Iranian leaders, specifically the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The election was held on June 12, and almost immediately the official Iranian news agency announced that the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had won an overwhelming victory over his rival, Mir-Hossein Mousavi. The results were a surprise, and almost immediately protests erupted around the country.

It’s worth recalling that the real power in Iran rests with the Supreme Leader. The administration wanted to establish lines to him—and at the same time not be blamed for instigating the protests. Given the difficult history of U.S. relations with Iran, officials were wary of appearing to interfere.

President Obama made his first statement on the protests and violence on June 15, in a news conference:

Obviously all of us have been watching the news from Iran.  And I want to start off by being very clear that it is up to Iranians to make decisions about who Iran’s leaders will be; that we respect Iranian sovereignty and want to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran, which sometimes the United States can be a handy political football — or discussions with the United States.
Having said all that, I am deeply troubled by the violence that I’ve been seeing on television.  I think that the democratic process — free speech, the ability of people to peacefully dissent — all those are universal values and need to be respected.  And whenever I see violence perpetrated on people who are peacefully dissenting, and whenever the American people see that, I think they’re, rightfully, troubled.

He added:

We will continue to pursue a tough, direct dialogue between our two countries, and we’ll see where it takes us.  But even as we do so, I think it would be wrong for me to be silent about what we’ve seen on the television over the last few days.  And what I would say to those people who put so much hope and energy and optimism into the political process, I would say to them that the world is watching and inspired by their participation, regardless of what the ultimate outcome of the election was.  And they should know that the world is watching.

So while Obama made a clear reference to respect Iran’s sovereignty, he also offered words that were more expansive than simply “no comment.” He said he was “deeply troubled” by the regime’s reaction.

Still, there were many experts that argued that in trying to not pick sides in the Iranian internal debate, Obama came off sounding weak. In particular, some critics were outraged when the president made this comment in a television interview on June 16:

“Although there is amazing ferment taking place in Iran, the difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual positions may not be as great as has been advertised. We’ve got long-term interests in having them not weaponize nuclear power and stop funding organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas. And that would be true whoever came out on top in this election.”

Obama administration officials at the time explained they were concerned that too much overt U.S. support for the demonstrators may feed Iranian suspicions about a U.S. desire for regime change and make Iran’s leaders less likely to agree to restraints on its nuclear program.

[Fact Checker: Did Iran’s Supreme Leader issue a fatwa against having a nuclear weapon?]

But pressure began to build for a more fulsome response, and on June 20 the president issued a slightly tougher statement. Finally, on June 23, Obama abandoned his restrained tone:

“The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings and imprisonments of the last few days. I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost.”

Still, as an account in The Post noted: “Since the election crisis began, the president has sought to preserve his options for future dealings with the government, assuming it survives. While his rhetorical message has sharpened, he has not called the June 12 election a fraud, refused to deal with the announced winner, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or spelled out sanctions Iran might face if it continues its crackdown on protesters. Obama has also been careful to avoid the appearance of meddling, even to the point of sidestepping all questions on Ahmadinejad’s legitimacy.” Officials at the time argued that since the Supreme Leader remained the ultimate decision-maker, particularly on nuclear issues, making it imperative to avoid picking sides between the two candidates.

In response, Rubio spokeswoman Brooke Sammon forwarded a New York Times article in which Obama, at a June 16 news conference, said it would be counterproductive for the United States “to be seen as meddling” in the election results. The article noted that Obama the day before had said he was “deeply troubled” by the violence. The article also quoted then-Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as defending Obama’s approach to the diplomatic conundrum. So we are not sure what the article proves — and Sammon made no further comment.

The Pinocchio Test

Rubio appears to have created a cartoon version of the White House reaction to the Green Revolution. While the administration did cite a need to respect Iran’s sovereignty, the president did more than simply decline to comment. He deplored the violence and eventually condemned the regime’s reaction to the protests.

Rubio would have every right to offer his opinion that the president was too slow or halting in his response, or did too little too late. But his claim that the president offered no comment at all is simply factually wrong. We wavered between Two and Three Pinocchios, but the lack of nuance in Rubio’s stance tipped it toward Three.

Three Pinocchios

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For more Fact Checks on Iran:

Fact Checker: Did Ahmadinejad really say Israel should be ‘wiped off the map’?

Fact Checker: Obama’s claim that Iran’s nuclear program has been ‘halted’