What can Americans afford to say about Iran?

Last week the political philosopher Michael Walzer wrote a short piece about the response to recent events in Iran for the Web sites of the New Republic and Dissent. There he carefully distinguished between the way private citizens and members of the media should respond to the Iranian government's mistreatment of its own people, and the way public officials in the West -- and President Obama in particular -- should respond. Anyone committed to democracy, Walzer argued, had a reason to denounce the fraudulence and thuggery of Iran's leadership, and to support the protesters who have defied the Supreme Leader. President Obama, though, must decide what he can allow himself to say in function of what he must later do -- which is to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons.

For liberals and leftists -- opposition and nothing else; for state diplomats --handshakes and negotiation. The difference in the two roles is important. It doesn't mean that heads of state cannot defend political principles, but they also have other things to do. Right now, the most important task of the U.S. government with regard to Iran is not regime change. The most important task is to persuade or coerce the Iranian government to give up the effort to produce nuclear weapons. Doing that will require some mix of toughness and conciliation -- and that necessary mix will still be necessary whoever actually won and whoever finally wins the Iranian election.

Walzer's formulation of this distinction is lucid and forceful, but behind it is the dubious idea that only denunciations issued by the White House or the State Department could hinder U.S. negotiations with Iran -- or be exploited by the Iranian leadership. Alas, the Supreme Leader and his propagandists are not so choosy. They tend to regard British and American journalists, for example, as agents of the state, perhaps because in their own country many journalists are agents of the state. And any Western voice loud enough to reach the streets of Tehran with useful information or encouragement will be loud enough to find its way into the Grand Ayatollah Khamenei's rhetoric about the United States, Britain, and Israel as the sources of every evil. President Obama doesn't have to say a word; the fact that CNN and the BBC are broadcasting images of young demonstrators shot dead in the streets is taken by the Iranian leadership as evidence that the U.S. and Britain are behind the protests.Of course, since the time Walzer wrote this piece, the president has condemned the Iranian government's actions in fairly severe terms. On Monday President Obama said the violent crackdown was a violation of "universal values":

I think it would be wrong for me to be silent about what weve seen on the television over the last few days. And what I would say to those people who put so much hope and energy and optimism into the political process, I would say to them that the world is watching and inspired by their participation, regardless of what the ultimate outcome of the election was. And they should know that the world is watching.

How could we not watch? And how could we remain silent about what we are seeing? It has been suggested by people less careful (and less honest) than Walzer that any expression of outrage on our part would be seized upon by those who hope that the Iranian people's distrust of the West is still stronger than their desire for justice at home. That hope seems more desperate by the day. In any case, our silence is not what the protesters themselves need or want; and if we decide to say nothing, we mustn't fool ourselves into thinking that we are doing them a favor. It may be easier for us to ignore what's happening there, or to give it a quick glance and a sad shrug. After all, we have so much to worry about already in Iraq and Afghanistan, and at home. It would be easier to think that what's easiest for us is also what's best for the Iranian dissidents. The reality is less convenient. The New Yorker's George Packer puts it well:

[E]ven if you dont have Iranian contacts, you can still try to imagine your way into the situation of the protesters. Every day you have to summon the courage to go out into the streets (where the death toll is now reportedly at thirty-two), and your awareness of international opinion is steadily diminishing as Internet and phone access is choked off. A part of your mind is alert to the danger of being labeled an American agent, always a factor in the regimes propaganda; but given the enormous risks youre already running, a much larger part of your mind is afraid that the world is going to lose interest or write you off, that the regime is going to stop feeling any international pressure to behave with restraint, and that when the guns start mowing protesters down in earnest, no one will be watching. When the stakes are this high, being the object of too much foreign concern is not likely to be your number one fear.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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