Iran, other US adversaries highlight unrest to undercut criticism by Washington

Foes, including China and Russia, use protests over George Floyd’s killing to cast Washington as hypocritical for criticizing their own human rights abuses

Demonstrators rally in San Francisco on May 31, 2020, protesting the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
Demonstrators rally in San Francisco on May 31, 2020, protesting the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Standing at a lectern with a backdrop map of the world behind him reminiscent of one at the US State Department, the spokesman of Iran’s Foreign Ministry made a point Monday to criticize the United States in English, amid ongoing protests over police killings of black people.

“To the American people, the world has… heard your outcry over this state oppression,” Abbas Mousavi told reporters in Tehran.

So too have Washington’s adversaries in Iran and elsewhere.

Long the target of American criticism, these nations have used the protests over the killing of George Floyd as an opportunity to hit back at the country held up by US leaders for decades as “the shining city upon a hill.”

By putting forth images of the unrest, they portray the US as a hypocritical superpower unable to secure its own people, as well as normalizing the violence and repression they visit on their own citizens.

“To be clear, though they are trying to sympathize with protesters in the US, their aim is to leverage the internal divisions in America… not to advance the debate on this,” said Ariane Tabatabai, a Middle East fellow who studies Iran at the Washington-based German Marshall Fund.

“Regime officials particularly like the theme of racial tensions in the US because it allows them to point the finger at Washington, which is often front and center condemning human rights abuses by the regime,” she said.

That is particularly valuable to Iran, which has violently put down recent nationwide economic demonstrations by killing hundreds, arresting thousands and disrupting internet access. The Islamic Republic has seen its already-ailing economy crater since US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew Washington from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers, cutting off its oil sales.

“The American regime is pursuing violence and bullying at home and abroad,” Mousavi said.

That criticism has extended to Twitter, which Iranian officials use extensively despite the website being banned since the mass protests and crackdown surrounding its disputed 2009 presidential election.

Former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose disputed re-election sparked the 2009 unrest, called Floyd’s killing “disturbing & upsetting.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a forum titled ‘Common Security in the Islamic World,’ in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, August 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian, File)

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif offered a rewritten statement earlier issued by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, crossing out Iran and replacing it with America.

Pompeo responded by tweeting: “You hang homosexuals, stone women and exterminate Jews.”

State-controlled media in China saw the protests through the prism of American views on Hong Kong’s anti-government demonstrations, which China has long said the US encouraged. In a commentary, the ruling Communist Party newspaper Global Times said Chinese experts had noted that US politicians might think twice before commenting again on Hong Kong, knowing “their words might backfire.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian offered his own criticism at a Beijing news conference.

The protests “once again reflect the racial discrimination in the US, the serious problems of police violent enforcement and the urgency of solving these problems,” Zhao said.

He added that China hopes the US will “safeguard and guarantee the legal rights of ethnic minorities.” That is, as China continues a years-long, massive crackdown that has locked away more than 1 million ethnic minorities, most of them Muslim.

Police special tactical squad detain a protester (C) in Wanchai, Hong Kong on May 24, 2020, as thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest against a national security law (Yan ZHAO / AFP)

In North Korea, the country’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported about the demonstrations, saying that protesters “harshly condemned” a white policeman’s “lawless and brutal murder” of a black citizen.

Three large photos showed protests from recent days from Minneapolis, where Floyd died on May 25, after a white police officer pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. The officer was fired and charged with murder, but protesters are demanding that the three other officers who were at the scene be prosecuted as well.

Rodong Sinmun noted hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the White House chanting, “No justice, no peace.” It did not make any direct comments about Trump, whom North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has met several times in high-profile summits.

Russia said the United States had systemic human rights problems.

Its criticism followed a longstanding pattern dating back to the Cold War. The 1957 integration of Little Rock Central High School by nine African American students supported by bayonet-carrying soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division saw one Soviet newspaper use the headline: “Troops Advance Against Children!”

US President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hand at the beginning of a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, July 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

That information warfare continues today in the cyber-realm, as US intelligence agencies say Russia meddled in America’s 2016 presidential election. Tabatabai said she and her colleagues had been tracking Chinese, Iranian and Russian social media accounts using the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #GeorgeFloyd.

US allies as well have been expressing their own opinions on the unrest. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said the arrests and assaults on journalists were “very concerning.” Zimbabwe summoned the US ambassador over US national security adviser Robert O’Brien’s allegation this weekend that Harare could be one of several foreign adversaries taking advantage of the demonstrations.

Meanwhile, Germany’s center-left Social Democratic Party, which is a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing coalition, on Monday described itself as “157 (years old) and Antifa. Naturally.”

The tweet appeared to be a response to Trump’s assertion that he would designate Antifa, an umbrella description for the far-left-leaning militant groups that resist neo-Nazis and white supremacists at demonstrations and other events, “a terrorist organization.”

And in Italy, a former US-based correspondent for the daily newspaper Corriere della Sera described the crisis facing the US as both “an insurrection and a pandemic” that could not be solved by the November presidential election.

“The American dawn will arrive,” Beppe Severgnini wrote. “But now it is the dead of night.”

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