The Obama administration's work in fighting for human rights across the globe has been largely behind the scenes, a strategy that has elicited criticism from those who believe public admonishment is the best way to shame brutal regimes into better treatment of their citizens.
When it comes to Iran, the administration's calculation is more complicated. Their ongoing pursuit of engagement with the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which coexists alongside a policy of increasing sanctions, requires a delicate balancing act. The State Department has been very vocal in its call for the release of the American hikers that have been detained in Iran since July 2009, but more reticent in supporting indigenous groups facing persecution by Iran's government, such as the pro-democracy Green Movement.
But there are signs that may be changing and that the State Department is poised to become more vocal in its public criticisms of Iranian human rights offenses.
Members of the Baha'i faith, one long-persecuted group in Iran, were greatly reassured Thursday when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement criticizing the Iranian government's persecution of the group. Seven Baha'i leaders were each sentenced to 20 years in prison this week.
"The United States strongly condemns this sentencing as a violation of Iran's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights," Clinton said. "Freedom of religion is the birthright of people of all faiths and beliefs in all places. The United States is committed to defending religious freedom around the world, and we have not forgotten the Baha'i community in Iran."
Persecution of the estimated 300,000 Baha'is in Iran has existed since the religion's inception in the 19th century, but increased dramatically following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when the eradication of the Baha'i faith became official government policy. Since the revolution, over 200 Baha'is have been killed by the regime, while hundreds have been imprisoned and thousands have been denied access to basic human rights, including the right to education and to work.
Shastri Purushotma, Human Rights Representative for the U.S. Baha'i community, told The Cable that they greatly appreciated Clinton's statement, whichmarked the first time she had spoken out on behalf of the Baha'is.
"The Obama administration and the State Department have spoken up at every major stage of their trial," he said. "It would be wonderful if President Obama could speak out about this too, in the right opportunity and right setting."
Clinton's statement on the Baha'i prosecutions came just two days after she sharply criticized Iran for its treatment of several other citizens who had been denied due process or basic freedoms.
She mentioned the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who was sentenced to death by stoning for alleged adultery, the case of Ebrahim Hamidi, who is being executed for sodomy, and the cases of Jafar Kazemi, Mohammad Haj Aghaei, and Javad Lari, three protesters arrested after the flawed June 2009 elections.
"The United States is deeply concerned that Iran continues to deny its citizens their civil rights and intimidate and detain those Iranians who seek to hold their government accountable and stand up for the rights of their fellow citizens," Clinton said.
For the Bahai, public awareness of their plight is crucial.
"If someone is trying to commit a crime, if they can do it in the dark, they have a better chance of getting away with it," said Purushotma. "All of these things are intertwined, you can't separate out human rights and the nuclear issue, because the way a country treats his own people is an indication of how they will treat their neighbors."
Jared Mondschein contributed to this article.