Silence of the Lambs

It's the combination of a nuclear capability with a dictatorship and aggressive internal and foreign policy that's so worrying.

The events unfolding in Iran since the elections are heartrending more than anything else, and then admirable and bewildering. The bewilderment is mostly about us, the allegedly free world, and the way we deal with aspirations for freedom. It's heartrending because in no other country do students and lecturers descend in the thousands from the ivory tower to the political battlefield - a real battlefield, where you can be arrested, disappear or bleed to death in front of a cellphone camera and a billion viewers.

It's admirable because in no other dictatorship do thousands of people from every social strata dare to call out daily "Death to the dictator." And our reaction is bewildering because the revolution caught us unprepared. We're shifting uncomfortably, trying to digest it all and adjust, while the leader of that free world is sitting on the fence, caught up in anachronistic plans of negotiating with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, waiting to see which side wins the day.

We've been force-fed the nuclear aspect of the Iranian problem for years, and we've been deluged with solutions: an American attack, an Israeli attack, carrots, sticks and negotiations. Only one option never came up - the freedom option. The truth is that we can't prevent Iran from developing nuclear technology; the problem is not about Iran having the technology in the first place. Many countries already have a nuclear capability, but this doesn't bother anyone as much. It's the combination of a nuclear capability with a dictatorship and aggressive internal and foreign policy that's so worrying.

When we insist on denying the Iranians technology, it's as if we're telling them: You're in the third world and you simply don't deserve to have the same things as us. But Iran is a country of tremendous history and culture, and even today its pupils easily beat their Israeli counterparts in the global rankings. Instead of denying the Iranians technological progress, their striving toward political reforms should be encouraged - this will prevent an abuse of nuclear technology in the future. U.S. President Barack Obama must declare that the conservatives who stole the elections and are violently suppressing protests no longer represent the Iranian people, and that he refuses to negotiate with them. A leader is tested on his flexibility and moral reaction to a changing situation.

It may well be that the thus-far hesitant American reaction stems from a desire to avoid making the Iranian reformists appear to represent Western interests. It's a legitimate argument. But it's hard to forget America's assistance in suppressing Iraq's Shi'ite revolt in 1991, and it's hard to stay silent without feeling like an accomplice when shown footage of a young woman dying with a bullet in her heart.

Even if 2009's revolution fails, Iran's rebellious and suffering people are teaching us an unexpected lesson in courage, democracy, sacrifice and personal involvement. But we are lousy students - a little lazy, a little slow. The lesson is wasted on us; we find more interest in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech at Bar-Ilan University than in the events on Tehran's streets. Maybe it's also that we're scared to look in the mirror and ask ourselves how involved we are, and how free. And maybe the ongoing silence of the leader of the free world, of whom so much is justly expected, means that along with technological advancement and a nuclear capability, freedom is a dangerous product whose spread should be contained.

The writer is a mathematics professor and author of the novel "Dark Matter."