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.
Thus Iran displays the ancient theocratic temper: the presumption that religious dissent equals political subversion. Iranian authorities have used the pretext of "spying" to punish the Baha'i community for most of the last century--as pawns of Russian imperialism, British colonialism, and American militarism. The international headquarters of the Baha'i faith is located in Haifa, Israel (where its founder was banished), a fact that invites Iran's leaders to combine vicious anti-Semitism with paranoid persecution. Mark Weitzman, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says the accusation of Israeli-inspired espionage is "as delusional as the mentality that allows a state to embrace Holocaust denial as a matter of policy."
The 2008 arrest of seven Baha'i leaders, two women and five men, belongs to this dreary pattern. Charged with "espionage for Israel, insulting religious sanctities, and propaganda against the Islamic republic," they've been held in prison for nearly a year without access to legal counsel. Last month Iranian prosecutors announced an impending "trial"--a sham proceeding in which the accused cannot present witnesses or offer evidence in their defense. Once convicted, they face a death penalty.
Following the trial announcement, over 260 Iranian academics, writers, artists and activists--most of them political exiles--signed an "open letter" to the Baha'i community condemning their treatment by the Iranian government. "We are ashamed of our silence when confronted with the long, dark and atrocious record that our laws and legal system have marginalized and deprived Baha'is of their rights We will no longer be silent when injustice is visited upon you." Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, told the European Parliament earlier this month that Iran is violating its treaty commitments--it is a signatory to the U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights--and should be held to account. Ebadi, who is representing the accused, explained that her Centre for the Defence of Human Rights was shut down by authorities and she and her colleagues harassed. "They can close my office," she said, "but they can't close my mouth."
The question now is whether the White House will demonstrate the same kind of diplomatic moxie. Will President Obama use his bully pulpit to stand up for the Baha'is, and other dissenting communities, even as he announces a new approach to U.S. foreign policy? Many in the foreign policy establishment are enthusiastic about the president's emphasis on dialogue over denunciations. Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, believes the administration's approach will undermine the regime's radicals and "puncture their narrative of a hostile U.S. government bent on oppressing Iran."
That seems a bit fanciful. It suggests that sweet reason can overturn irrational hatreds that supply the lifeblood of a political culture. Moreover, altering the conspiratorial narrative of the Iranian government should not be the focus of U.S. diplomatic efforts. The Obama administration should continue to reach out to ordinary Iranians, many of whom do not share the religious delusions of their leaders. But the White House must not be afraid to speak plainly about the repressive nature of the regime. Iranian reformers--and other moderates in the region--will not be strengthened by an American president who winks at the negation of fundamental civil and political rights.
In his message to Iran, President Obama stressed that his administration is committed to diplomacy that "addresses the full range of issues before us." Although he declined to mention it, the brutal and systematic persecution of a peaceful religious minority falls squarely within that agenda. The president is just beginning to articulate his approach to Iran and radical Islam. There is an understandable learning curve. What we are learning, though, is that it requires more than a diplomatic "open hand" to soften religious bigotry and tame a militant faith.
Joseph Loconte is a senior research fellow at the King's College in New York City and a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.