Op-Ed: Stop pretending to care about Iranians’ rights

NEW YORK (JTA) — The recent Op-Ed in JTA championing human rights in Iran was very compelling but for two facts: It was co-authored by two of Israel’s greatest advocates, and they published it in JTA, a Jewish media outlet.

As a community, we can be willing to bomb Iran into oblivion in order to stop its nuclear program, or we can worry about the rights of its citizens. We cannot, and should not even pretend, to do both.

The co-authors, Canadian lawmaker Irwin Cotler and U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), are high on the AIPAC speakers list because they are leaders in the effort to safeguard Israel’s security on the ground and protect its good name at the United Nations. It’s been a while since either of them was significantly involved in broad-based human rights work unrelated to the pro-Israel agenda.

Were there a way to push such propaganda that also benefited the Iranians fighting for participatory democracy, it would be benign. But when Cotler and Kirk call on Jews to demand democracy and human rights in Iran — implicitly branding it as a pro-Israel priority — it actually undermines the cause of dissidents who are risking their lives and being tortured daily just for the basic human dignity that most JTA readers take for granted.

At the same time, numerous Jewish leaders and friends of AIPAC routinely defend Israel’s right to attack Iran and push for stronger international sanctions, including denial of certain conveniences and necessities that impact the quality of life for most Iranians — those whom Cotler and Kirk would presumably “save” from the regime.

Unlike the black South Africans of the 1970s and 1980s, these Iranians are not encouraging us to isolate and strangle their country economically and politically. It’s something we do because we care more about Iran’s threat to Israel than we do about the lives of individual Iranians who may or may not support the Islamic regime.

As should also be evident, not only do most of the brave Iranians Cotler and Kirk claim to be helping not want their help, they would probably continue much of the terrorist and nuclear enterprise the current regime is pursuing. As we’ve seen with their counterparts in Egypt, Libya and Syria, Iranians are not looking to replace their leadership in order to make friends with Israel.

Unlike Iraq, which the British created barely a century ago, Iran’s Persian national identity stretches back thousands of years. The recent election of a “reformist” president to succeed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won’t change most of Iran’s hard-line policies, given the religious control over major decisions. But even a complete change of regime — whether by internal revolution or external force — would be unlikely to produce a cooperative government that renounces Iran’s inbred aspirations to regional hegemony.

If the main reason the pro-Israel community pushes democracy and human rights for Iranians is to justify further crippling sanctions and to enable the devastating use of force, then we should stop. Let’s stick to emphasizing Iran’s violation of its international obligations and the dangers it poses to its Gulf neighbors and the State of Israel.

This superficial “human rights” campaign will not fool the European, Russian and Chinese officials we do need to convince. It’s only fooling some of our own, and the transparent cynicism of this approach affects our credibility on the nuclear issue and many other communal priorities we want to advance.

(Shai Franklin is senior fellow for United Nations Affairs at the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.)

SPONSORED TRIBUTES: Click here to read appreciations of U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg. 

Shai Franklin is a contributing writer to JTA.