Soon after coming to office in 1981, President Reagan issued an order. At every meeting with Soviet officials, American officials were to begin by posing a question: "How is Natan Sharansky's health?"
Sharansky was the brilliant mathematician whose fluent English had made him the spokesman for the Soviet dissident group, Helsinki Watch. Arrested in 1978 on treason charges, he was sentenced to 13 years in prison. At first, his Soviet captors confined him under brutal conditions. Under the pressure of constant attention from the world, however, the Soviet dictatorship gradually relented. At the first Reagan-Gorbachev meeting in 1985, the new Soviet leader agreed to release Sharansky.
Reagan-style individual attention does not always work in human- rights cases. Strong and confident regimes will brush off the international community, as China did after Tiananmen Square, and as Saudi Arabia regularly does with complaints about the maltreatment of women.
More vulnerable regimes cannot afford to be so dismissive, however. And right now there are few regimes on earth more vulnerable than Iran's.
That's not the way the Iranian regime tells it, of course. At his inaugural ceremony Aug. 5, Iran's massively discredited president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, delivered defiant words to the international community:
"No one in Iran is waiting for your messages. Iran will pay attention neither to your scowls and bullyings, nor your smiles and greetings."
But one of the rules of international reporting is that the thing an authoritarian regime most emphatically repeats is the very thing it is most inwardly worried about. When you visit Dubai and are told 10 times before lunch, "Dubai is environmentally sustainable," you get a pretty good idea that Dubai is not environmentally sustainable. And when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insists he does not care about international scowls, you know those scowls carry a lot of weight.
The Iranian regime has arrested hundreds of dissidents and is organizing vicious show trials, featuring confessions almost certainly extracted by torture. The detained and arrested persons are well known to the diplomatic community and Iran specialists, but they are not household names. Their obscurity empowers their tormenters.
Through this summer's dramatic events in Iran, the Obama administration has carefully avoided any expression of doubt about the legitimacy of the election. The administration preferred not to insert itself into the middle of somebody else's fight. It also seems to have calculated that the regime would survive—and so preferred not to say things that might irritate it.
Two days after the election, the president was expressing only mild "concerns" about the violent suppression of peaceful protest. It took until Day 11 for the president to use stronger language, describing himself as "appalled" and "outraged" by the regime's brutal actions.
In the past week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared her admiration for the dissidents. But on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs reverted to form, describing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the "elected" president of Iran. Next day, Gibbs corrected himself and withdrew that description. And perhaps it was a mere misstatement, one that could happen to anyone. But the drift of administration policy seems clear. It deplores the regime's excesses, but equally hesitates to speak out on behalf of any particular victim, including the three American hikers detained by Iranian authorities over the past weekend.
There are good reasons for noninterference in the Iranian election process. But it is weird for any American administration to display so little revulsion against the kind of mass repression we see in Iran. Is the Obama administration reverting to the pattern of past liberal Democratic administrations that found it more comfortable to criticize the misdeeds of America's friends than America's enemies?
The safety and survival of the Iranian protesters require something more than impersonal admiration from afar. The secretary of state—the president!—should mention the names of detainees aloud and, like Ronald Reagan, express public concern for their personal welfare. It's not a guarantee by any means. But as Natan Sharansky can attest, for all the risks, it is amazing what a little publicity can do.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- Internet piracy isn't killing Hollywood
- 4 things NASA can teach you about a good night's sleep
- How Israel's hawks intimidated and silenced the last remnants of the anti-war left
- This 1,600-year-old Viking war game is still awesome
- The fascinating political evolution of Paul Ryan
- The secret to handling pressure like astronauts, Navy SEALs, and samurai
- 10 things you need to know today: August 21, 2014
- It's time for the police to rethink 'shoot-to-kill'
- Is the Christian music industry liberalizing on gay marriage?
Subscribe to the Week