The Trump administration’s defense of offering public support to protesters in Iran is not very persuasive:
Mr. Hook pushed back on the notion that energetically backing Iranians’ right to publicly express their views would give ammunition to the regime.
“It doesn’t matter what we do, they will blame us,” he said. “For us, this is not a complicated question. We want to take a position with moral clarity and let the protesters know they’re not alone.”
The Iranian government will try to blame outside actors for the protests (Khamenei did just that today), but it doesn’t follow that this makes it right or smart for our government to offer public backing. It does matter what “we” do through our government, and it matters how “we” do it. The U.S. should be very careful that its statements and actions can’t be used as weapons against people protesting their own government, and the surest way to avoid blunders that benefit the regime is to say and do as little as possible. This is contrary to the ingrained Washington impulse to “do something” in response to whatever shows up in the news, but it is the right thing to do.
Whenever government officials begin talking about “moral clarity,” you can be reasonably sure that the policy in question has little or nothing to do with morality. The same administration that claims to want “moral clarity” in its position on protests in Iran couldn’t care less about the crime against humanity being committed by its clients in Yemen. This is the same administration that told our despotic clients in Riyadh that it wasn’t interested in “lecturing” them about their internal affairs. “Moral clarity” is the phrase that is used whenever someone in Washington wants to denounce adversaries for actions that he ignores or excuses when they are committed by governments on “our” side. It is a signal that our government is about to engage in some highly selective and cynical public criticism.
The problem with U.S. backing for domestic protesters in another country isn’t just that it risks undermining them, but that it inserts the U.S. into internal political disputes that are not really any of our business. There is a danger that our interference will end up harming those it is intended to “help,” but there is an even greater danger that it strengthens the belief among our policymakers that our government somehow has the right to “shape” the internal political life of another country. The U.S. doesn’t have that right, and the presumption that it does is one of the reasons why our government is viewed with so much mistrust and suspicion.