It's tempting to say that Europe's leaders lack the courage of their convictions. But that would imply that they have convictions. The evidence suggests those days are gone.
In particular, Europe's leaders have been conspicuously unmoved by the spectacle of Iranians, day after day, taking to the streets in dozens of cities and towns, risking arrest, torture and death to protest their oppression and impoverishment by a religious class that has been Iran's ruling class for almost two generations.
The theocrats have used the nation's oil wealth, in addition to the billions of dollars that have filled Iranian coffers thanks to sanctions relief, to support fighters in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Gaza. Europe's leaders, regretful about Western imperialism in the past, appear not to give a damn about Shia imperialism in the present.
A statement issued by the European Union was determinedly vapid: "In the last days, we have been in touch with the Iranian authorities. In the spirit of frankness and respect that is at the basis of our relationship, we expect all concerned to refrain from violence and the right of expression to be guaranteed, also in light of the statements made by the Iranian Government."
Federica Mogherini, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, added nothing and, over the weekend, paid a visit to Cuba where she signed agreements aimed at "strengthening engagement" with the Communist dictatorship. About the growing number of political prisoners rotting in Cuban jails, she also kept mum.
Brexit notwithstanding, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was no bolder, merely calling "on all concerned to refrain from violence." His reticence may have to do with the fact that he's been attempting to obtain the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual citizen detained in Iran for 18 months. Hostage-taking has proven an effective tactic for the clerical regime.
The response of Britain's Labor Party was worse. Emily Thornberry, shadow foreign secretary, said she didn't know who in Iran should be seen as "the guys with white hats." I'm old enough to remember when socialists had no difficulty distinguishing between working people with underfed children and billionaires who send thugs to bash in the heads of those who dare complain.
French President Emmanuel Macron responded to the upheaval in Iran with harsh words for — can you guess? — the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia. The policy of these three countries, he said, "is almost one that would lead us to war."
Meanwhile, at the United Nations Security Council in New York, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley attempted to marshal what The New York Times called "a muscular international response to Iran's crackdown on anti-government protesters." The Russian ambassador, Vasily A. Nebenzya, archly suggested that "Black Lives Matter" be taken up instead.
Criticizing American race relations to block action or even discussion of egregious human rights violations elsewhere is a card Kremlin apparatchiki have played since Soviet times. I first encountered it when I was an exchange student at the University of Leningrad in the 1970s. "Please, don't use that argument," I interjected one time. "I see how Russians treat African students right here in this dormitory." My interlocutor grew indignant: "That's different!" he said. "How so?" I asked. "Well, because, you know, they go after our women!"
Nonetheless, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, posted the Russian ambassador's comments on Twitter, adding: "A real 'F-youski'" moment at the UN. Reveals just how isolated U.S. has become in the world along with the absence of anything approaching an international community when it comes to obligations of sovereign states to protect freedom and human rights."
I asked: "Is the implication here that Vladimir Putin would today be our steadfast ally on human rights if only Hillary Clinton had been elected president?" He did not deign to answer.
Mr. Haass is right about one thing: America is increasing alone. The number of countries willing to defend fundamental liberties is small and shrinking.
The question for the Trump administration now is whether its principled rhetoric will be buttressed by significant actions. Such actions, I'd argue, should have two aims: (1) to support suffering Iranians, and (2) to raise the cost of the regime's transgressions — its terrorism, its development of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, its violations of fundamental human rights at home and abroad.
Worth noting: Such measures would not terminate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. That deal lifted sanctions imposed due to Tehran's illicit nuclear weapons program in exchange for assurances that the program would be temporarily suspended. Blanket immunity for all future Iranian transgressions was never contemplated — or so John Kerry and other Obama administration spokesmen repeatedly reassured us.
The list of potentially useful actions is long. Here's one: President Trump should designate EIKO (Execution of Imam Khomenei's Order, or Setad in Persian) and its dozens of subsidiaries for corruption under the Global Magnitsky Act. EIKO is a massive holding company under the full control of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. A Reuters investigation estimated its value at $95 billion — a store of wealth, assembled from "the systematic seizure of thousands of properties belonging to ordinary Iranians." Using secondary sanctions, the U.S. could then penalize any foreign companies or individuals doing business with EIKO, its subsidiaries or front companies.
In addition, whatever information U.S. intelligence has about other stolen assets held by other Iranian government entities — the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, for example — should be publicized. Ordinary Iranians have a right to know how much the theocrats have taken from their pockets. Ordinary Europeans have a right to know who their leaders are so afraid to offend and so eager to appease.