- President Donald Trump is expressing support for Iranian protesters as they flood the streets in outrage over their government’s shooting down a passenger plane and killing 176 people, including dozens of Iranians.
- Trump has warned Iran against killing protesters amid reports of violent crackdowns.
- This has all occurred in the wake of Trump’s order for a drone strike that killed Iran’s top general.
- As Trump offers rhetorical support for Iranians, his administration continues to bar them from travelling to the US.
- The Trump administration has also crippled Iran’s economy with harsh sanctions that have in many ways hit regular Iranians the hardest.
Less than two weeks after threatening to risk committing a war crime by bombing Iranian cultural sites, President Donald Trump is portraying himself as a fierce defender of ordinary Iranians.
Trump has vowed to continue to “stand with” Iranians amid reports of crackdowns on anti-government protests, warning Tehran against killing demonstrators.
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The president’s expressions of solidarity with Iranian protesters, which have primarily come via Twitter (a platform that’s officially banned in Iran) and included tweets in Farsi, appear to the president’s critics as little more than empty posturing when juxtaposed with his administration’s actual policies toward Iran.
As Trump offers his support to Iranians, for example, his administration’s travel ban simultaneously blocks them (and people from six other countries) from coming to the US.
Along these lines, Brett McGurk, the former special envoy on the global coalition to defeat the Islamic State terrorist group under both the Obama and Trump administrations, on Saturday tweeted: “The Iranian people are our allies. In the wake of this horrific aeroplane tragedy, why not lift Trump’s useless travel ban against Iranian citizens? Encourage them to visit and see America. Seize all high ground away from Khamenei. Should be a bipartisan no brainer.”
‘Trump’s policy … is actually bolstering the Islamic Republic and allowing its leaders to externalize its problems’
Since Trump withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran in May 2018 – a move many Iran watchers point to as the catalyst for the current tensions – his administration has crippled Iran’s economy with relentless sanctions as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign meant to squeeze it into negotiating a new deal.
Regular Iranians have been hit hard.
Iranians have said the average person, and not the country’s leaders, are hurting the most from the US-imposed economic sanctions. The unemployment rate in Iran is forecast to go as high as 17.45% this year, CNBC recently reported.
Trump administration officials have said the sanctions are not meant to hurt the Iranian people but have also hinted that they’re hoping to cause enough frustration that it leads Iranians to “rise up” and “change the behaviour of the regime.”
Speaking on the maximum-pressure campaign last February, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “They’re weaker. Their economy is a wreck. The Iranian people are very frustrated. Forty years on, 40 years after the revolution, things are much worse for the Iranian people, and we’re convinced that will lead the Iranian people to rise up and change the behaviour of the regime.”
.@roxanasaberi: "Have you seen any sign that this pressure is pushing Iran to negotiate with the U.S.?"
Sec. Mike Pompeo: "Things are much worse for the Iranian people, and we're convinced that will lead the Iranian people to rise up and change the behavior of the regime." pic.twitter.com/VVc3MNsHWs
— CBS Evening News (@CBSEveningNews) February 14, 2019
Nader Hashemi, an Iranian Canadian political scientist who is director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, over the weekend told Canada’s CBC: “Ironically, Donald Trump’s policy, I would argue, is actually bolstering the Islamic Republic and allowing its leaders to externalize its problems by pointing to the comprehensive crippling sanctions that have been imposed on Iran and the assassination of senior leaders like Soleimani.”
“The best way of characterising the mood of Iranian young people, the middle class, and people in urban settings is that they feel caught between a rock and a hard place – between an authoritarian regime on the one hand that’s deeply repressive, and then a Donald Trump on the outside that’s sanctioning Iran to death,” Hashemi added. “And so they’re feeling a lack of hope, a lack of optimism, and then this tragedy compounds the pain and the misery.”
Iranians are outraged at their government over Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752
The latest round of anti-government protests in Iran is related to Trump’s order for the drone strike that killed Iran’s most important military leader, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, in early January.
Iran retaliated to Soleimani’s killing with a missile attack aimed at US and coalition forces in Iraq. Shortly thereafter, Iran accidentally shot down a civilian airliner, Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. After initially denying involvement in the deadly January 8 crash, the Iranian government said “human error” brought on by fears of a US military retaliation was to blame.
Tehran has taken a remorseful tone after acknowledging responsibility for the incident, but that has not prevented waves of Iranians from flooding the streets to condemn the government. Of 176 people killed in the crash, 82 were Iranian.
Before Soleimani’s killing and the plane crash, Iran had also been experiencing internal unrest in recent months linked to its struggling economy, in some cases resulting in the government killing demonstrators.
For a moment, Soleimani’s death seemed to unite the country, with massive crowds paying their respects to the slain general while expressing animosity toward the US. In roughly a week, images of grief-stricken Iranians have morphed into images of Iranians enraged at their government.
The protesters have directed much of their anger at Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with some reportedly chanting, “Death to the dictator!”
The Iranian government has denied reports that security forces have fired live ammunition at protesters, and accused Trump of shedding “crocodile tears” with his support for protesters, CBS News reported on Monday.
Trump ‘mocks Islam’ as he expresses support for people in Iran, a predominantly Muslim nation
On Monday, Trump retweeted a fake image of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wearing a head scarf and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer wearing a turban in front of an Iranian flag. Trump and other Republicans have accused Democrats of sympathizing with the Iranian government and terrorists in response to criticism of the Soleimani strike and in the aftermath of the anti-government protests following the downing of Flight 752.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations condemned Trump over the retweet, saying it “mocks Islam” and “endangers American Muslims, Sikhs and members of other faiths who wear recognisable religious attire and are increasingly targeted by bigots nationwide.”
Similarly, Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, tweeted: “It’s outrageous that @realDonaldTrump elevated such repulsive anti-Muslim bigotry. #Islamophobia is offensive & unbecoming of any leader, let alone @POTUS. When #hate & division are on the rise, this is the opposite of what we need from the President. An apology is in order ASAP.”
At the same time, the Trump administration continues to offer an inconsistent series of defences over Soleimani’s killing, with a Senate impeachment trial linked to the president’s dealings with Ukraine on the horizon.