They say turnabout is fair play.
The Islamic Republic, so frequently a punching bag for its own political unrest and human rights abuses, is reveling in being on the other side of the equation for once. As cities across the United States descended into chaos following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd last week, Iranian officials and media highlighted the protests and brutal police response as signs of the United States’ imminent unraveling. It was, in many ways, a bizarre reflection of the way American media and politicians (from both parties) have sought to portray Iran following past spasms of political protest and government violence.
Kayhan, Iran’s most prominent hardline media outlet and whose publisher, Hossein Shariatmadari, is a direct appointee of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, ran images from the protests at the top of their front page for the majority of the past week. On May 25, it published the photo of Floyd with his neck pinned beneath Officer Derek Chauvin’s knee alongside the headline, “‘I can’t breathe’ — The last words of the latest black victim in the Wild West.”
It was a similar story over on Twitter, where various Islamic Republic officials condemned the U.S. response and expressed solidarity with black Americans by using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. A recently created account for the Supreme Leader’s website has spent the last few days tweeting out slickly produced videos highlighting America’s long and ugly history of racial discrimination. In one, a series of clips of American police brutality ends with the words “Human Rights American Style” displayed across the screen. Another compares American police to ISIS. “Both of them are the same,” Khamenei says in a voiceover set against dramatically swelling music.
In his critiques, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has been slightly more diplomatic. On May 1, he tweeted a “markup” of a June 2018 press release from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about Iranian protests, altering it to apply to the recent American unrest. The foreign ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, tweeted out the video of Chauvin killing Floyd along with the caption, “Brutal killing of #GeorgeFloyd by Minneapolis’ white man in uniform in cold blood is a harrowing demonstration of systematic racism and white supremacism glorified by the current administration.”
In reality, the George Floyd protests will not fundamentally alter the status quo in American-Iranian relations, which are and will remain abysmal as long as Trump is in office. It won’t make negotiations between Iran and the U.S. any more likely, despite the latest State Department ultimatum warning Iran that it must choose between sitting down with the Trump administration or managing an economic collapse. If anything, Trump’s flagging poll numbers amidst the civil unrest and the botched response to the coronavirus crisis will only serve to harden Tehran’s will to holdout through the November presidential election, where a Biden victory may give Iran a glimmer of hope of meaningful sanctions relief.
What the protests and the authorities’ response, including Trump’s own call to “dominate” the protesters, do achieve is to allow Iran to claim the moral high ground, at least temporarily. However disingenuous and self-serving Iranian criticisms of U.S. policing and racial injustice might be — especially when one considers Tehran’s own lengthy and horrific human rights record — the present chaos in the streets helps Iran muddy the waters in the perpetual contest for domestic and international public opinion. The Iranian government is not only expressing solidarity with social movements like Black Lives Matter; they are also implicitly positioning themselves as BLM’s international parallel: unfair victims of an unjust, oppressive, and vindictive American government.
At the very least, the Trump administration’s response to the protests, which has included the tear gassing of peaceful protesters outside the White House, will take the sting out of any potential condemnations that will follow the next, inevitable round of popular protests in Iran. After all, how is it possible to make a credible call for regime change by pointing to masses of people in the streets when the very same thing is happening right outside your own front door?
Former CIA analysts who monitored protests abroad have expressed concern about the similarities between the way foreign autocrats manage anti-government protests and how Donald Trump has reacted over this past week. It’s not difficult to see why. The characteristics of the American government response — defiant rhetoric, accusations of outside agitators, and state-sanctioned violence — is a crystalline reflection of how despotisms handle mass dissent against their regimes. When seen in that light, the Iranian reaction makes a lot of sense. Iran is looking in the mirror right now, and it likes what it sees.