WASHINGTON—It has been painful to see so many political leaders in the United States devalue the Iranian uprising—potentially the most important event since the fall of the Berlin Wall—by using it to score cheap points off each other, disrespecting the people who are risking everything in the name of freedom.

The right had been blustering against Tehran for years and scolding the left for wanting negotiations with the Islamic tyranny. And yet, as soon as millions of Iranians took to the streets in defiance of both Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, much of the right acted as if it was more enraged about the possibility that an overthrow of the theocracy might validate Obama’s foreign policy than about the despicable regime’s conduct. This is the impression given by the likes of Sen. John McCain, House Republican Whip Eric Cantor, and others who, in the wake of Iran’s uprising, have had much more to say about the president of the United States than about the high stakes of the Persian crisis. Take it from Peggy Noonan, a conservative Republican, who wrote in The Wall Street Journal that “this was Aggressive Political Solipsism at work . . . always make someone else’s delicate drama your excuse for a thumping curtain speech.”

As if conditioned by these leaders in perfect Pavlovian fashion, several right-wing outlets subordinated their coverage of Iran to domestic calculations. If you had been reading only the Drudge Report these past few days—to name but one very popular conservative-leaning Web site, you could hardly have noticed that an entire generation of Iranians raised under the theocracy are asking for their votes to be counted (democracy), women to be treated like human beings (equality under the law), students and intellectuals to be able to explore ideas (academic freedom), and, lo and behold, an end to hostility toward the West (peaceful coexistence.)

President Obama’s initial response was prudent. The last thing you want, in a country whose late history has been one of retrogrades gaining the upper hand against modernizers by using nationalistic mythology, is to make the United States the issue. In fact, the reformists in Iran can draw on a tenuous homegrown tradition of liberal democracy. In 1906, in the aftermath of a powerful movement against the traditional shahs, the Iranians limited the power of the ruler, forcing him to accept an elected parliament and a liberal constitution. That modernization was arrested by Reza Pahlavi, founder of a new dynasty, who came to power in the 1920s after a coup backed by Western powers. Then, in the 1950s, Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who lamentably embraced economic nationalism but attempted (again) to limit the power of the shah, was overthrown in a coup backed by Western powers.

These events, and the subsequent alliance between the corrupt shah and the liberal democracies in the context of the Cold War, fueled the anti-Western mythology upon which Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini based his Islamic revolution in the late 1970s. What the Iranian resistance is now doing, consciously or not, is rescuing the tiny filaments of liberal tradition that lay buried under so much ideological mendacity. The United States should not do anything that hinders that journey. Which is why, despite initially acting more intelligently than many of his domestic critics, President Obama made a serious error of judgment when he said that there was not much difference between Ahmadinejad and his challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi. Nobody who openly disobeys Ayatollah Khamenei and places electoral legitimacy—and therefore government by consent—above the word of God emanating from the supreme leader, can be compared, until he proves otherwise, with the regime he is fighting against.

Mousavi’s followers obviously see it that way—including the women who march holding signs in English, Satan’s language, or the students who tell us their revolutionary tales through Western technology, for whom Twitter, YouTube and Facebook mean what Gutenberg’s printing press meant for Europe’s Renaissance.

Unlike Twitter, which kept its service going by postponing a maintenance interruption, or Google, which produced a Farsi translation tool, or YouTube, which relaxed its rules in order to allow Iranians to post graphic material depicting the repression of the protesters, and unlike so many associations setting up solidarity networks in the United States and Europe, for American politicians this has not been their finest hour.