For now, the Iranian government has suspended the death-by-stoning sentence meted out to Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the 43-year-old mother of two who was convicted of adultery. There is a lesson here.
There is often debate in free countries about whether it is counterproductive to protest human-rights outrages committed by repressive countries. For most of the past decade, for example, while Hugo Chávez has cemented his relationship with Iran, he has made life for Venezuela’s Jewish community more and more precarious. More than once, regime thugs have invaded Jewish community centers and synagogues. These violent outbursts were accompanied by escalating anti-Semitic rhetoric from state-controlled media and from the president himself.
A debate erupted within American Jewish circles. Is it better to protest loudly and publicly or will this simply make the lives of Jews in Venezuela that much harder? Writing in the Miami Herald in January 2008, Dina Siegel Vann of the American Jewish Committee cautioned that “shouting and screaming from the safety of the United States may feel good to some, but the goal of the exercise is not to satisfy their needs [but those] of Venezuelan Jews who have repeatedly said that such behavior is likely to exacerbate the situation. . . . Many in decision-making positions in the U.S. government have rightly, if belatedly, concluded that public confrontation with his regime should be avoided when possible.”
Leaving aside the assertion that Venezuelan Jews preferred their American co-religionists to remain silent (many did not), and acknowledging that some in “decision-making positions in the U.S. government” preferred back-channel diplomacy (that would be the State Department), the call for “quiet diplomacy” sacrifices too much.
As we have seen in the case of Sakineh Ashtiani, international protests very much do affect the way even the worst regimes treat their people.
During the 1970s, Jewish groups around the world drew attention to the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union. Through demonstrations, letter-writing, organizing at synagogues and on university campuses, and even picketing the visiting Bolshoi Ballet, activists highlighted the fact that Jews in the U.S.S.R. were not only second-class citizens but prisoners as well. Of course, all citizens of the U.S.S.R. were prisoners. But only the Jews had an international cheering section. Bill Buckley wrote at the time that he hoped the Soviets would release every Jew who wished to emigrate — except one, so that the protests would continue.
The agitation on behalf of Soviet Jewry came at a time when the West was deeply wedded to the idea of détente, which in practice did not simply mean “live and let live” but was thought to require self-censorship on our part. It became bad manners to call too much attention to the spirit-crushing tyranny behind the Iron Curtain. The Jewish protesters embarrassed the State Department and other “decision-makers” within the U.S. government. But they won. In 1974, Congress passed the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which linked “most favored nation” trade status to freedom of emigration. As Richard Perle, one of the drafters, recalled later, “It had a galvanizing effect on millions of Soviet citizens — Jews and non-Jews — who understood that people in the West . . . were willing to stand with people seeking freedom.”
Natan Sharansky, who was a “prisoner of conscience” in the gulag when President Reagan delivered his “evil empire” speech, spoke of its effect. “It was the great brilliant moment when we learned that Ronald Reagan had proclaimed the Soviet Union an evil empire before the entire world. . . . That moment made it impossible for anyone in the West to continue closing their eyes to the real nature of the Soviet Union.”
Ashtiani, who has already received 99 lashes in the presence of her teenage son, was facing “imminent” stoning — a method of execution that is really torturing someone to death. The Iranians have carried out such sentences — most often on women (you can find pictures on the Internet if you can stand it) — many times in the past. Never before has an international outcry been triggered. But Ashtiani’s two children have gotten the message out, and protests have erupted across the globe. Eighty prominent people including Condoleezza Rice, Robert Redford, the president of the European Parliament, Robert DeNiro, Bernard-Henri Lévy, and three former British foreign ministers signed an open letter in the Times of London condemning the regime. The president of Brazil, lately a pal of Ahmadinejad’s, was even moved to offer the woman sanctuary in his country. The public shaming of the Iranian regime has possibly saved Ashtiani’s life. We are left to imagine what sort of electric effect a strong show of support from our current president might have on the rest of Iran’s suffering people.