Trump ratchets up support for demonstrators in Iran

The Trump administration on Tuesday ramped up its support for the protests gripping Iran and urged other nations to take a stand against Tehran’s violent crackdown on demonstrators.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (U.N.) Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyTreasury retweets Trump, possibly violating campaign law UN human rights chief: Trump’s anti-press rhetoric is ‘very close to incitement to violence’ Who guards the guardians? MORE called on the Security and Human Rights councils to hold emergency meetings to address the growing unrest in the country.

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“The U.N. must speak out,” Haley said at a news conference in New York. “We must not be silent. The people of Iran are crying out for freedom.”

Back in Washington, the State Department called on the Iranian government to unblock Instagram and other social media sites that demonstrators have used to communicate and share photos and videos.

“They are legitimate avenues for communication,” Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein told reporters at the State Department. “People in Iran should be able to access those sites.”

The White House cast its support of the protests as a break from the way former President Obama approached Iran.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump threatens ex-intel official's clearance, citing comments on CNN Protesters topple Confederate monument on UNC campus Man wanted for threatening to shoot Trump spotted in Maryland MORE tweeted Tuesday morning that “the U.S. is watching” the anti-government protests and blamed the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal for the deteriorating situation in the nation.

“The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime,” Trump wrote. “All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their ‘pockets.’ ”

Yet the protests, which have lasted for six days, are testing the limits of the Trump administration’s aggressive approach.

Iranians first took to the streets to vent their anger over the nation’s sputtering economy, but the protests soon widened to grievances against Iran’s ruling class, which Trump has singled out as a top enemy of the U.S.

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that nine people were killed overnight amid crackdowns on the demonstrations, bringing the overall death toll to at least 21.

The protests are the largest in Iran since the 2009 “green revolution,” when demonstrations broke out over the disputed results of a presidential election.

The Obama administration was criticized for reacting too slowly to those protests, something White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders seized upon during her Tuesday briefing with reporters.

“President Trump’s not going to sit by silently like President Obama did, and he certainly supports the Iranian people and wants to make that clear,” she said.

Despite that expression of support, Sanders stopped short of calling for a power change in Iran.

“I think the ultimate end game would be that the citizens and the people of Iran are actually given basic human rights. And he’d certainly like to see them stop being a state sponsor of terror,” she said.

While the White House has stepped up its rhetoric, it’s unclear what further action, if any, the administration will take in response to the protests.

The administration is reportedly considering new sanctions against Iran over the deteriorating human rights situation there, but White House officials did not respond to questions about what those penalties could entail.

Some foreign policy experts warn U.S. involvement could backfire, allowing Iranian leaders to paint the protesters as part of an American plot to overthrow the government.

Indeed, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday blamed the demonstrations on the “enemies of Iran,” while Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, specifically blamed the United States, Britain and Saudi Arabia.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused Trump of having a double standard, pointing out the president’s close ties with Saudi Arabia, which is routinely condemned for its poor human rights record.

“Iran’s security and stability depend on its own people, who — unlike the peoples of Trumps regional ‘bffs’—have the right to vote and to protest. These hard-earned rights will be protected, and infiltrators will not be allowed to sabotage them through violence and destruction,” Zarif tweeted.

Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which has close ties to the Trump White House, said the Trump administration’s response to the protests has been “spot on.”

He lauded the State Department’s weekend statement singling out the Iranian people as the “longest-suffering victims of Iran’s leaders.”

The administration should keep up that rhetoric, Taleblu said, and impose “smart sanctions” targeting corruption and human rights abuses.

“The key is making sure the rhetoric is matched with the reality on-ground in Iran and backing up the rhetoric with sanctions that support the Iranian people,” he said.

Still, Taleblu acknowledged the risks of the Iranian government using U.S. support to undermine the protests’ legitimacy.

“The Iranian people should own this. They’re the ones taking the action. The U.S. shouldn’t be leading it,” he said. “But at same time, if we’re pulling punches for fear of them getting labeled, they are getting labeled anyway and are on the streets anyway.”

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, which backs the nuclear deal, said Trump squandered his credibility with the Iranian people with his past actions and rhetoric on Iran.

“He has no popularity, no credibility on Iranian streets,” Parsi said.

If the Trump administration really wants to help the protesters, Parsi added, it should remove Iran from the list of countries whose citizens are barred from traveling to the United States.

That will be particularly important, Parsi said, if protesters need to flee their government.

“You can’t claim to be on their side and then impose a Muslim ban and treat them as terrorists,” Parsi said.