WHITE HOUSE - U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has vowed the United States will stand with Iranian anti-government protesters for the long haul, and he said President Donald Trump stands ready to back the uprising with more than just words.
"President Trump's unapologetic willingness to stand with the courageous people of Iran, I know, is giving hope to the people on the streets of the cities of that country," Pence said in a VOA interview. "And we're going to continue to support them not just verbally as they bring about change in their country."
State Department officials have told VOA the administration is considering economic sanctions or other actions against people or organizations that commit violence against peaceful protesters.
Speaking to VOA contributor Greta Van Susteren in his ceremonial office in the Executive Office Building on Wednesday, Pence declined to elaborate on what actions the United States might be considering, saying only that there is "an extraordinary amount that the United States and countries around the world can do for the people of Iran if they continue to stand up for their own freedom."
The vice president said the administration believes current sanctions on Tehran are working, and could be increased. "This president and this administration are absolutely committed to continue to bring the full economic weight of the United States and these economic sanctions to bear on Iran."
2018 vs 2009
The Trump administration's quick embrace of the Iran demonstrations contrasts with the Obama administration's more muted response to street protests in 2009 that lasted for months before dissipating under a deadly government crackdown.
At the time, American officials expressed worries that by forcefully backing one faction in Iran's political divide, the U.S. would be inserting itself into a domestic political dispute. Iranian leaders frequently blame the United States and other countries of fomenting unrest.
Pence said that reluctance to get involved was a mistake.
"I remember back in 2009 seeing this largely youth-driven movement following a fraudulent election in Iran, people taking to the streets demonstrating incredible courage that the people of Iran did to claim a democratic and free future. And they looked to the White House in those days in 2009 and they looked for leadership and there was none. There was deafening silence from the Obama administration," Pence said.
"Unlike the past, this time America stands with the brave Iranian protesters who are risking their lives for freedom," Pence tweeted in a summary of his VOA interview.
Talking directly to the Iranian people today. My interview with @Greta for @VOANews will air in Iran. The message from @POTUS and me is clear: Unlike the past, this time America stands with the brave Iranian protesters who are risking their lives for freedom! #IranProtests pic.twitter.com/DIXFC3Nyvw— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) January 3, 2018
Former Obama administration officials dispute that view. Writing in the New York Times, Philip Gordon, a former top state department official in the Obama administration, argue that such high-profile support could do more harm than good.
"It was never clear what difference American rhetorical support would have made then, other than allowing the Iranian government to depict the protesters as American lackeys, giving the security services more of a pretext to crack down violently," he said.
How Can Trump Help Iran’s Protesters? Be Quiet. https://t.co/w0MNlWMkxG— Susan Rice (@AmbassadorRice) December 31, 2017
?The vice president called the American people "a natural ally" of Iran and said he sees a parallel between Trump's words of support for Iranian protesters and President Ronald Reagan's encouragement of Soviet dissidents in the 1980s.
"If I had one hope today, it is just as the dissidents in the old Soviet Union heard of Ronald Reagan's Evil Empire speech and were encouraged to know that they were not alone, my hope is that the people who are taking to the streets in Iran know that under President Donald Trump they are not alone, that the American people stand with them," Pence said.
The vice president's comments came as Trump tweeted a statement backing the uprising, even as Iran's state media reported that tens of thousands of pro-government demonstrators had staged rallies across the country following days of anti-government protests.
"Such respect for the people of Iran as they try to take back their corrupt government," Trump said in a Twitter comment. "You will see great support from the United States at the appropriate time!" It was not immediately clear what assistance Trump had in mind.