Trump steps up rhetorical support for Iran protesters

Trump steps up rhetorical support for Iran protesters

US leader and his administration throw their weight behind demonstrators, ignoring warnings that intervention could backfire

US President Donald Trump speaks before signing the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington,  December 12, 2017. (Evan Vucci/AP)
US President Donald Trump speaks before signing the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, December 12, 2017. (Evan Vucci/AP)

WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump sought to ramp up pressure on Iran’s “brutal and corrupt” regime amid a sixth day of anti-government protests Tuesday, ignoring warnings that his intervention could backfire.

Trump demanded a snap UN Security Council meeting to debate unrest that has killed 21 people — mostly protesters — and fired off ever-harsher condemnations of the Islamic republic’s rulers.

“The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime,” Trump tweeted, setting the tone for a fresh rhetorical blitz on America’s old enemy in Tehran.

Vice President Mike Pence tweeted similar sentiments shortly afterwards, calling on “freedom loving people everywhere” to stand with the Iranian people.

His top diplomat at the United Nations, Ambassador Nikki Haley, used her public platform to recite protesters’ slogans and declared that “the people of Iran are crying out for freedom.”

From the White House podium, Sarah Sanders also took aim at the regime, accusing it of spending Iran’s “wealth on spreading militancy and terror abroad, rather than ensuring prosperity at home.”

“Prices for everyday staples and fuel are rising, while the Revolutionary Guard spend the nation’s wealth on foreign militant groups and enrich themselves in the process.”

Trump — flanked in the White House by a coterie of former generals who spent a career fighting Iranian proxies from Beirut to Baghdad — has taken a hard line against Iran since coming to office.

He has abandoned Obama-era diplomatic overtures and embraced allies in Israel and Saudi Arabia who are keen to confront Iran’s growing regional power.

Much of Trump’s response has focused on playing up perceived errors by the Obama administration, not least a deal that gave Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

“All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their ‘pockets.’ The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The US is watching!” Trump tweeted.

US President Donald Trump and US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speak during a meeting on United Nations Reform at the United Nations headquarters on September 18, 2017, in New York. (AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY A. CLARY)

Trump — who built his broader political fortunes around opposing the previous president — has left the fate of that deal with Congress while he continues to oppose it.

Obama’s muted support for 2009 protests in Iran has also appeared to play a role in the Trump administration’s’ more vocal response.

He has taken to Twitter multiple times since the protests erupted last week.

On Monday, he said it was “time for change” in Iran and that the country’s people were “hungry” for freedom.

In response to Trump’s latest Twitter attack, Iranian officials have said online accounts in the United States, Britain and Saudi Arabia are fomenting protests, which Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed on the country’s “enemies.”

The White House dismissed suggestions that Trump’s interventions could fuel allegations of foreign hands at work.

“I think even Hillary Clinton outlined this when she said that the Obama administration was too restrained of the 2009 protests and said that won’t happen again,” said Sanders.

“President Trump is not going to sit by silently like President Obama did. And he certainly supports the Iranian people and wants to make that clear.”


Beyond rhetoric, though, it wasn’t clear what the Trump administration could do substantively to empower the protesters, who are railing against corruption, mismanagement and economic woes including higher food prices. His support also sets up a potential test of his presidential leadership if the protests — already deadly — grow more violent.

Protesters wave flags as they gather outside the Iranian Embassy in central London on January 2, 2018, in support of national demonstrations in Iran against the existing regime. (AFP PHOTO / Ben STANSALL)

At least 21 people have died and hundreds have been arrested over six days of demonstrations, the largest in Iran since the “Green Movement” that erupted in 2009 following a disputed presidential election. The new outbreak started in Mashhad, Iran’s second-largest city, and has expanded to many others.

Iranian authorities have sought to suppress the protests in part by shutting down key social media sites protesters use to communicate, including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and the messaging app Telegram. On Tuesday, Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein urged Iran’s government to unblock the sites.

“They are legitimate avenues for communication,” Goldstein said. He said the US has an “obligation not to stand by.”

Iranians seeking to evade the blocks can use virtual private networks, Goldstein said. Known as VPNs, the services create encrypted data “tunnels” between computers and can be used to access overseas websites blocked by the local government.

The primary US goal is to ensure enough global attention to deter Iranian authorities from violently cracking down on protesters with impunity, said a senior State Department official involved in Iran policy. The official wasn’t authorized to comment by name and demanded anonymity.

For Trump, the protests have served as an unexpected but welcome opportunity to rally the world against Iran, and US officials said the administration was actively encouraging other countries to back the protests. Early US attempts to get European allies to coordinate their messaging with the US ran into obstacles, but several countries including France and Italy have joined in expressing concerns.

In the US, Trump’s full-throated support for the protesters has renewed the debate about how best to encourage change in Iran, whose government Trump deems a top national security threat.

In this photo taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, university students attend a protest inside Tehran University while a smoke grenade is thrown by anti-riot Iranian police, in Tehran, Iran, December 30, 2017. (AP Photo)

Under President Barack Obama, the US took a more cautious approach during the last major wave of anti-government protests. It was concerned about enabling Iranian authorities to exploit longstanding suspicions of the US, dating back to American and British support for a 1953 coup toppling Iran’s elected prime minister.

Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former deputy national security adviser, said “too much ownership” of the protests by Trump would likely be counterproductive.

“I can’t imagine that the people marching in the streets of Iran are looking to Donald Trump for inspiration or support,” Rhodes said. “I just don’t think it helps things for the White House to make this into a US-versus-the-Iranian-government circumstance.”

But former Sen. Joe Lieberman, a staunch Iran critic, said it’s a given Tehran will portray dissent as externally provoked.

“That’s a very weak excuse for American inaction and inconsistency with our own interests and values. I’m glad President Trump is not following that advice,” Lieberman said in an interview.

It wasn’t immediately clear what effect Trump’s support was having on the protests, although Iran’s state TV reported his tweets and some Iranians shared them online.
When it comes to supporting the Iranian aspirations, Trump’s credibility may be dented by his hostility to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement and his inclusion of Iranians in his travel bans.

Trump’s insistence in an October speech on using the term “Arabian Gulf” in place of the Persian Gulf also riled the Iranian public. There also was criticism of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for saying America was working with people in Iran for a “peaceful transition of that government.”


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