Does US support help Iranian protesters?

Tehran is feeling the pressure of Washington’s support for Iranian protesters and its ongoing campaign of economic sanctions.
Sunday 01/12/2019
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks about protests in Iran to the media in the briefing room at the State Department in Washington, November 26. (AFP)
An eye on developments. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks about protests in Iran to the media in the briefing room at the State Department in Washington, November 26. (AFP)

WASHINGTON - Experts are debating whether Washington’s support helps the case of demonstrators in Iran or if instead it plays into the hands of Tehran as it attempts to discredit them.

The Trump administration has asserted its support for anti-government protesters in Iran many times. Such expressions included a tweet by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on November 21 asking Iranian protesters to send the US government information and audiovisual material documenting the regime’s crackdown on them. Pompeo said in a statement on November 26 that the United States had received more than 20,000 pieces of digital evidence proving that Iran has been abusing the protesters. He explained that he wanted to use the evidence to “expose and sanction the Iranian regime.”

The protests could be seen by some as a golden opportunity for the Trump administration in its thinly veiled quest for a regime change in Iran. However, Jason Rezaian, the former Tehran bureau chief for the Washington Post, said it has yet to take full advantage of the unfolding events. “The current situation gives the United States an opportunity to do some real good; so far, it hasn’t managed to capitalise,” said Rezaian, who was held in prison by Iran and convicted of espionage charges before being released with three other Americans in custody in January 2016.

Tehran is feeling the pressure of Washington’s support for Iranian protesters and its ongoing campaign of economic sanctions.

In an attempt to quell internal discontent, the Iranian authorities have encouraged pro-government rallies and given out cash stipends to low- and mid-income families. “The moves show how Tehran is struggling to address the public’s deep discontent while balancing its books. The government is struggling to prop up living standards as its oil-dependent economy comes under pressure from US sanctions,” wrote Benoit Faucon, a correspondent with the Wall Street Journal.

In an attempt to discredit the protests, Tehran has used its official news agency to highlight the show of force by pro-government crowds. “I recommend they (foreign countries) look at the marches today to see who the real people in Iran are and what they are saying,” said Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi.

Iran has also tried to present the demonstrations as part of US and “Zionist” conspiracies.

During one of the pro-government rallies November 25, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, General Hossein Salami, threatened the United States and its allies saying: “If you cross our red line, we will destroy you.”

But US support for Iranian protesters may not be as determined as Pompeo claims his administration is. Key figures in the US Senate have made statements supporting the Iranian protesters but have yet to engage any tangible action. Senators cite other protests around the world and rising tensions with Turkey as issues taking the forefront of the legislative agenda. “I got Hong Kong pending; I got Turkey pending; I got a bunch of other things pending,” said Jim Risch, a Republican senator from Idaho.

Many argue that supporting the Iranian protesters should be a prime issue for Congress, as opposition to the Iranian regime is a bipartisan cause. “Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, a more equitable representative government is something that would be in line with American strategies and American values. There’s no reason not to amplify Iranian voices protesting on the street today,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Other experts, such as Morad Ghorban, director of governmental affairs at the Public affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, believe that US interaction with the Iranian protests is the biggest threat to the regime. Engaging “less actually plays into the hands of the hardliners who want to blame America for Iran’s trouble,” said Ghorban.

Not everyone sees Washington’s support for Iranians favourably. Rezaian said Iranians are being singled out “for collaborating with US and other foreign actors during the protests.” To prevent that, Rezaian said “Washington should avoid any step that could be misconstrued to imply coordination with the protesters. Yet the administration doesn’t seem to realise this.”

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