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Iranian Protests Prompt Differing Western Responses


FILE - Iranian students scuffle with police at the University of Tehran during a demonstration driven by anger over economic problems, in the capital Tehran, Iran, Dec. 30, 2017.

Should Western leaders be offering loud rhetorical support for Iran's anti-government protesters?

The five days of protests that have seen a dozen people reportedly killed since the unrest broke out last Thursday has prompted different responses from Western governments, with some restraining their comments for fear of feeding into Tehran's efforts to label protesters fifth columnists who are following the instructions of foreign powers.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who has railed against the Iranian regime since entering office and has deepened Washington's ties with Iran's bitter rival in the region — Saudi Arabia — has offered fulsome praise in a series of tweets praising the anti-government protests. "The world is watching!" he tweeted, adding: "Oppressive regimes cannot endure forever."

In another tweet Saturday, Trump echoed comments he made at the United Nations last September, saying, "The entire world understands that the good people of Iran want change, and, other than the vast military power of the United States, that Iran's people are what their leaders fear the most."

But other leaders have decided circumspection is the better approach, with some European officials arguing that to do otherwise might inadvertently boost the most hostile anti-Western elements in Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and discredit the protesters.

Others say it is unclear exactly what is driving the unrest and worry hardliners might be encouraging the demonstrations in order to undermine the reformists' government currently in power.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a dedication ceremony of the "Assuta" hospital in Ashdod, Israel, Dec. 21, 2017.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a dedication ceremony of the "Assuta" hospital in Ashdod, Israel, Dec. 21, 2017.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who might have been predicted to be as outspoken as Trump, has been more cautious about the biggest protests to roil Iran since the crushing of the pro-democracy "Green Movement" in 2009.

He has pursued, so far, the strategy adopted by the Obama administration in 2009 — namely to observe and say little. Netanyahu's office has asked government ministers to restrain their comments on the unrest, which began Wednesday in Iran's third most important city, Mashhad, initially over the harsh economic conditions ordinary Iranians are facing, and has spread to other cities, including the Iranian capital Tehran.

The call for restraint came after two Israeli ministers posted on Twitter emphatic support for the protesters, with one minister — Tzachi Hanegbi — applauding Iranians who have taken to the streets, saying they are "courageously risking their lives in the pursuit of freedom" and that the "civilized world" should support them.

On Monday, Israel's intelligence minister, Israel Katz, also praised the protesters. Testifying before a parliamentary panel in Jerusalem, Katz said, "We want to see the repressive regime removed and replaced with a democracy." While he insisted Israel isn't involved, he focused most of his testimony on the threat Tehran poses to Israel rather than what's unfolding on the streets of Iran.

The different responses between Israeli and American leaders reflect partly different assessments about the likely outcome of the unrest, including whether outspokenness by Western leaders will do more harm than good.

Analysts are also divided.

"If Iranians do choose to rise up and push aside their government, it will not be the result of support from Washington," argued Philip Gordon, who served as White House coordinator for the Middle East during the Obama administration.

Writing in The New York Times on Saturday, Gordon argued, "Whatever Iranians think of their own government, they are unlikely to want as a voice for their grievances an American president who has relentlessly opposed economic relief for their country and banned them from traveling to the United States."

Others, including James Robbins, a former special assistant in the U.S. Department of Defense during the George W. Bush administration, take issue with that view, arguing the Iranian protesters deserve Western support.

"Whether the protesters can sustain their momentum, and whether security forces will start to desert the regime, remains to be seen. The demonstrators deserve every encouragement from the free peoples of the world, with the hope that they may soon drive out the tyrants in Tehran," Robbins said in a dueling opinion article written for USA Today.

U.S. officials say not offering rhetorical support for the protesters would appear inconsistent and fly in the face of previous encouragements of pro-democracy aspirations.

"How would it look if Trump backed away from his comments last September at the U.N. when he argued against the rule of the mullahs and said, 'The entire world understands that the good people of Iran want change?'" a U.S. official told VOA.

In this photo released by official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani speaks in a cabinet meeting in Tehran. Dec. 31, 2017.
In this photo released by official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani speaks in a cabinet meeting in Tehran. Dec. 31, 2017.

Some Iranian liberals argue they could live with the inconsistency, arguing that Trump's threat to tear up the 2015 deal struck with foreign powers over Iran's nuclear program was exploited by regime hardliners and conservatives to attack the country's reformist president, Hassan Rouhani, during his re-election campaign earlier this year.

Trita Parsi of the Washington-based National Iranian American Council argues, "The fastest way to discredit these legitimate grievances expressed by the Iranian people is for Trump to throw himself in the mix."

Some current and former U.S. officials are highly critical of the more cautious statements on the unrest being expressed by European governments. The Europeans generally have confined their remarks to urging Iranian authorities to observe international norms on human rights, arguing Iranians have the right to protest.

But they have avoided encouraging the protesters or mentioning regime change.

Britain’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, posted Monday on his official Facebook page, “The UK is watching events in Iran closely. We believe that there should be meaningful debate about the legitimate and important issues the protesters are raising and we look to the Iranian authorities to permit this.”

European caution has been met with open scorn by some former U.S. officials, including Alberto Fernandez, a former diplomat and now the president of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, a non-profit news organization funded by the U.S. Congress, tweeted his astonishment at the reticence of the Europeans. He said, though, it “makes perfect sense from their perspective. They are betting this thuggish regime will survive. And the corrupt engagement process [and money-making] will continue.”

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