Sure, Iran sees Evin as the mirror image of Guantánamo. But undoing that U.S. aberration was central to Obama’s message. Speaking out against the abuse of Iranian political prisoners must be equally so. Obama should continue to seek engagement — it’s the only way forward — while denouncing the outrages. ~Roger Cohen
Remedying our own government’s errors is one thing, but it is not at all clear why “speaking out” against Iran’s abuses should be equally vital to Obama’s administration. “Speaking out” against another regime’s abuses cannot be as important as eliminating our own abusive practices. This is true even when our practices pale in comparison to those of other governments. There are some things over which our government has essentially no influence. Indeed, one of the reasons our government has so little influence in this case is the decades-old insistence on severing all ties with Iran and endlessly ratcheting up pressure to try to isolate Iran.
In this case, “speaking out” is worse than useless. It is the sort of empty rhetorical gesture that Westerners engage in to feel better about themselves and to make a public display of compassion for people for whom they cannot (and possibly would not) do anything meaningful. In the meantime, harping on Obama’s lack of public outrage aids the forces in the U.S. that would like nothing more than to see continued mistrust and hostility between our governments.
Cohen says that Obama “needs to express the outrage of the United States of America,” which takes several things for granted. He assumes that Americans are particularly outraged by the treatment of Iranian political prisoners. No doubt, all of us believe this treatment is unjust and wrong, but how many are really outraged by it? What does it mean to say that we are outraged by it? If Obama “speaks out” on behalf of Iranian political prisoners, it might give them momentary encouragement, but it would change nothing in the regime’s behavior, except perhaps to make things worse. The demand that Obama “speak out” is ultimately a selfish one made by people who want to feel as if they and their government have some control over a situation that is beyond our control. If Obama issued ringing denunciations of Iranian abuses, it would give Western audiences some comfort, and it would offer some false hope to Iranian dissidents who would expect to see Obama shape his policy decisions accordingly, but it would primarily be for our own consumption and it would be a very easy way for Obama to score cheap political points with a political and pundit class steeped in our modern moralistic foreign policy traditions.