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July 2009

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American inconsistency in our approach to other countries’ human rights violations has again been illustrated, according to this essay, by the Obama administration’s reaction to the Iranian election. – Ed.

Hanged as a Sheep
By David T. Jones

The dramatic aftermath of the 12 June Iranian election has caught President Obama in the classic conundrum regarding U.S. attitude/action toward human rights.   For a generation, U.S. foreign policy, driven inter alia by the annual State Department human rights reports, has focused prominent attention on human rights.  Throughout this era, we have balanced between:

  1. unmitigated denunciation of specific abuses by specific countries (the worst criticism directed at the most prominent abusers) that are also clear enemies of the United States, e.g., North Korea, Burma, and Iran); and
  2. nuanced criticism of friendly states that have specific violations of human rights (Israel, Saudi Arabia) or with whom we are attempting to maintain and improve a multifaceted relationship of which human rights is but one (and sometimes a peripheral) element, e.g., China, Russia.

Thus for the latter states, we are in a constant betwixt-and-between bind.  Do we belabor the USSR to release Jewish “refusniks” when higher profiles bring them not release but increased persecution?  Do we emphasize Chinese repression of Tibetan nationals and Falun Gong religious practitioners when we have complex economic trade/debt issues with Beijing, not to speak of our need for Chinese leverage over North Korean action?

And a complicating factor is that those being persecuted (refusniks, Falun Gong adherents) often prefer the publicity from denunciations and accept upgraded persecution.  The moral question then becomes: Are we complicit in the persecution?  Did we encourage the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet occupation that resulted in thousands dead?  When words can have bloody/brutal consequences, is silence (or muted speech) the best approach?

But silence/muted comment is also a betrayal of our first principles.  If we do not speak out – strongly – against outrageous abuses, the conclusion must be that our outrage is selective and calculated rather than principled.  And this has been the case for the Iranian election.

The Obama administration has determined that it will do foreign policy differently – certainly differently than Bush 43.  That decision meant reaching out to states such as Iran with an apology for interfering in Iran in 1953 and an outreached hand which Tehran has spurned. 

To be sure our relationship with Iran is complex, and perhaps there is a level of misunderstanding on each side.  But “America held hostage” for 444 days, with our diplomats incarcerated and our embassy violated, is hard to forget, let alone forgive.  Nor have the Iranians been particularly eager to make nice.  Thus we have now gone far longer without diplomatic relations with Tehran (30 years) than we went without relations with “Red China” (23 years). 

And perhaps that is appropriate.  There are regimes whose interests and objectives are implacably opposed to ours – regimes with which we can have normal relations only when they change.  And Iran appears to be such as case.  Their revolutionaries are no more likely to yield to opponents after 30 years in power than Chinese communists were willing to yield power in 1989 after 40 years in power.  A “Tehran Tiananmen” is not likely let alone inevitable, but it is certainly possible.  Thus it honestly doesn’t matter whether the 12 June election was stolen or legitimate (enhanced by overly zealous local officials).  It was a faux election; with candidates vetted and limited by a shadowy religious leadership immutably hostile to the United States.  For our interests, it doesn’t matter whether Tweedledee or Tweedledum won; the marginal difference is, well, marginal; our societal differences remain existential.  Nothing that we say will affect Iran’s commitment to a nuclear weapons program – or prevent it from changing direction should it decide to reverse course.

Consequently, President Obama’s initially temporizing rhetoric did us no good.  In response, the Iranian leadership railed against our “interference” since our very existence is interference.  Because the United States and the West offer alternatives to the purist Islamic faith embraced by Iran’s leadership, we interfere by definition.   We owe it to ourselves and the Iranians to denounce directly the regime’s many human rights violations.  President Obama is now channeling his inner “Dubya” and could do worse than quote (with more elegant rhetoric) the substance of the 2008 State Department human rights report on Iran – it applies directly today:   

...The government severely limited citizens' right to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections. ... Vigilante groups with ties to the government committed acts of violence. ...Security forces arbitrarily arrested and detained individual.... and intensified a crackdown against women's rights reformers, ethnic minority rights activists, student activists, and religious minorities. There was a lack of judicial independence and fair public trials. The government severely restricted civil liberties, including freedoms of speech, expression, assembly, association, movement, and privacy, and it placed severe restrictions on freedom of religion. ...  http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2008/nea/119115.htm

In the end, it is better to be hanged as a goat than as a sheep.bluestar


David T. Jones is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer and frequent contributor to American Diplomacy and other publications as well as the co-author of Uneasy Neighbo(u)rs, a book about U.S.-Canada relations.

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