09/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Reigniting America's Human Rights Mojo

Thirty years after Ayatollah Khomeini rode grassroots disaffection with the Shah into power, the majority of Iranians (unlike Iraqis) have an overwhelmingly positive attitude towards America. Not anger but disbelief echo in Tehran's streets as ordinary Iranians ask: Why is Washington silent? What has happened to America's leadership on human rights?

First came President Obama's signals that he wanted to negotiate with corruptly-elected President Ahmadinejad even as the mullahcracy brutally repressed the Twitter Revolution. Now, comes two waves of "Show Trials," with the regime investing tremendous effort and prestige in trying 100 democracy protesters, accused of the sin (nowhere in the Iranian Penal Code) of trying to engineer "a velvet revolution." This is still small scale compared to the thousands who lost their heads during the French Terror's trial-by-guillotine, and the millions during Stalin's mass purges, publicly executed or, more often, just disappeared into gulags.

Yet the Mullahs' show seems far from over. The image of former VP Mohammad Ali, stripped of robe and turban and the right to be tried by fellow clerics, looking dazed and emaciating as he falteringly reads a confession about bizarre plots--recalls Stalin's original conspiratorial show trials. Ali and fellow "reformers" were denied lawyers, but at least allowed a public trial--unlike the hundreds of other less-known figures returned to grieving relatives by the prison authorities, along with a bill for the coffin.

After three decades, Khomeini's revolution has begun to "devour its own" -- just as the French revolutionaries guillotined each other, and the Old Bolsheviks disappeared in time for Russia's near-destruction by Hitler during World War II. Perhaps the Iranian hardliners will end up shooting each other, circular firing squad fashion. Or perhaps, sans any tangible and moral support for the Iranian people, they'll use the Soviet dictator's tactics to last as long as he did.

How did we lose our human rights Mojo and how can America recapture it?

Throughout our history, the U.S. has had great presidents and generals, but we're a great nation because our moral vision derives, not from the centralized top down, but from the periphery and the grassroots. In the midst of the Cold War, as the U.S. suffered setbacks in Vietnam and during Watergate, a new generation of bipartisan human rights activists emerged who demanded that -- every American toast with Brezhnev, every Arms Control negotiation -- be accompanied by demands that the human dignity of the people of the Soviet Bloc not be forsaken. Initially, presidents and pundits dismissed such demands as inconvenient nuisances, but eventually U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz -- with bipartisan support from Congress -- would successfully make human rights the cornerstone of American foreign policy. Americans not only helped free dissident Sakharov and refusenik Sharansky, we helped inspire people behind the Iron Curtain to believe in the possibility of change.

American presidents -- from Carter and Reagan to Bush, Clinton, and Bush -- deserve credit, not for originating this grassroots human rights crusade, but by co-opting it into their foreign policy game plan, with varying degrees of success.

Now, Barack Obama has been elected president because of an impressive grassroots movement promising "change we can believe in." Change, yes, but not repeal of three decades of a muscular bipartisan commitment to build a U.S. human rights brand that inspired reformers from Poland's Lech Walesa, to the anonymous young man who faced down a tank in Tiananmen Square, to Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi. In Cairo, President Obama rightly said that the U.S. should not be in the business of imposing democracy, but can we be indifferent to those who seek to embrace it?

In May 1945, U.S. troops liberated the emaciated inmates of Mauthausen concentration camp including Simon Wiesenthal. The survivors helped Colonel Richard Seibel replace the Swastika with a handsewn American flag secretly pieced together from salvaged cloth, consisting of 13 stripes and 56 stars. They were wrong about the numbers--but got America's promise right. Their inspiration was not drawn from reading American newspapers or hearing on the radio President Franklin Roosevelt eloquent "The Four Freedoms" speech. No, the late Mr. Wiesenthal recalled, "It was because the Stars and Stripes represented Hope."

To live up to the promise of Mauthausen's 'Stars and Stripes', leaders on both sides of the Congressional aisle must call a truce in their domestic policy brawlslong enough to re-establish its historic bipartisan support for human rights.

And as tyrants and despots vie for their richly undeserved limelight at the General Assembly next month, President Obama should use his moment at the corrupted UN bully pulpit to signal them all that the United States will once again openly pursue the cause of human rights at every venue.

Rabbi Cooper co-authored this essay with Historian Dr. Harold Brackman, a consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center