The Blog

The Limits of Diplomacy

Obama gives cold comfort to persecuted Iranians.

2:45 PM, Mar 25, 2009 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

President Barack Obama's diplomatic overture to Iran, delivered last Friday to mark the start of the Persian new year, could hardly have been more conciliatory. He spoke of the "shared hopes" and "common dreams" between Americans and Iranians. He promised a style of political engagement that was "grounded in mutual respect." He praised Iran as "a great civilization" whose accomplishments "have earned the respect of the United States and the world."

The president's earnest appeal, however, manifestly failed to gain the respect of the Iranian regime. "He insulted the Islamic Republic of Iran from the first day," complained Ayatollah Khamenei, the nation's "Supreme Leader" and most powerful figure in government. "If you are right that change has come, where is that change?" Obama's video greeting probably also failed to gain much of an audience: It was kept off of state-owned television, and video-sharing sites such as YouTube are blocked by the government.

As the Obama administration embarked on a path of soothing and solicitous diplomacy, others were taking Iran to task for its latest assault on democratic rights. Last week, at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, the European Union castigated Iran for imprisoning and threatening to execute seven members of the Baha'i faith on fabricated charges of espionage. (Predictably, the Iranian representative dismissed the accusation as "baseless.") Last month, the House and Senate passed resolutions denouncing Iran for "state-sponsored persecution" of its Baha'i population. A bi-partisan congressional majority is now calling on President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to "immediately condemn" Iran's actions and demand the release of prisoners "held solely on account of their religion."

Numerous western governments, and virtually every human rights organization monitoring the situation in Iran, have done the same. Groups such as the London-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) warn that the Iranian parliament is considering legislation to establish the death penalty for apostasy--inviting massive problems for Baha'is and Muslim converts to Christianity or other religious traditions. "The international community focuses on Iran's nuclear ambitions," says Alexa Papadouris, an advocacy director for CSW. "But the day-to-day suffering of non-Muslims in Iran gets brushed aside."

Many Iraq experts and commentators are lauding the fact that alleged "moderates" have entered the presidential race in Iran. Whatever the outcome of that contest--given the tightly controlled nature of Iranian elections--the real test of reform will be easy to measure. "It will be reflected in the government's treatment of religious and political dissent," says Rep. Trent Franks, co-chair of the International Religious Freedom Caucus. "Iran's contempt for basic human rights remains the elephant in the diplomatic living room."

Nowhere is the problem more visible than among the 300,000 or so members of the nation's Baha'i community. Tracing their faith to the nineteenth-century teacher Baha'u'llah--regarded as God's prophetic messenger in the line of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad--Baha'is believe in the fundamental unity of all religions and anticipate a universal civilization. Though drawing their doctrines partly from the Koran, they are considered "unprotected infidels" under the Iranian constitution: enjoying no legal status, they can be killed with impunity. The 1979 Iranian revolution, which established a radical Islamic dictatorship, set off new waves of persecution. Twenty-five years ago, following another crackdown, Richard Ostling of Time warned of a "reign of terror" against the Iranian Baha'i. Since then, thousands have been arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and held without trial. Hundreds have been executed. Their property has been seized, assembly halls shut down, and cemeteries and shrines desecrated. At least 10,000 adherents have been forced out of government and university jobs.