Trump demands Iran allow new anti-government protests to continue

President Donald Trump tweeted support for anti-government Iranian protesters in both English and Farsi Saturday evening, writing, “I’ve stood with you since the beginning of my Presidency, and my Administration will continue to stand with you. We are following your protests closely, and are inspired by your courage.”

Protests began Saturday at two universities in Iran, as Iranians gathered to mourn the 176 lives lost on Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752, which the Iranian government admitted to accidentally shooting down early Saturday. That flight contained 82 Iranian citizens; Iran initially blamed its crashing on a technical error, calling US and Canadian claims that it had been shot down “lies.”

Angered over the Iranian government’s apparent attempt to hide the accidental killing of civilians, mourners in the crowd turned hostile, chanting anti-regime slogans and tearing up pictures of senior Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani, who was killed in a US airstrike on January 3.

Ahead of shooting down the plane, Iran responded to Soleimani’s death with missile strikes on US positions in Iraq; the government said “human error” led to military officials mistaking the aircraft for an enemy plane in the wake of those strikes.

At the protests, Iranians chanted “commander-in-chief resign,” referring to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and “death to liars.” Some also chanted, “They are lying that our enemy is America, our enemy is right here.”

Iranian security forces reportedly broke up the protests using tear gas. It isn’t clear how many people attended the demonstrations, or how widespread they were. Iran’s semi-official news agency, Fars, said there were roughly 1,000 people protesting, however, given that the agency is seen as being pro-Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, it is possible the number was higher.

The US continued to encourage the protests Sunday, with Trump warning Iran to allow the protests to continue. He also called on the country to restore internet access — there were reports on social media that it had been shut down to limit the spread of protest videos, a tactic Iran has used in the past — and, despite his own attacks on reporters, Trump demanded Iran allow journalists complete freedom of the press.

He also demanded protesters not be killed, a nod to the anti-government protests in Iran last fall, during which more than 1,000 people were arrested, and at least 300 killed.

The Trump administration has attempted to encourage protests in Iran before, to little avail

During 2019’s protests, the Trump administration actively worked to encourage protesters with messages of support. And this weekend, it issued similar messages, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a key voice in the push for war with Iran, saying “America hears you. America supports you. America stands with you. May God bless the people of Iran.”

This weekend’s anti-regime protests are the first in Iran since the airstrike that killed Soleimani. Last year, however, thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest a sudden 50 percent rise in gas prices, and difficult economic realities more broadly. The rise in fuel prices came two days after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that the government faced a deficit that amounted to nearly two thirds of its $45 billion budget.

Iran has been hit hard by economic hardship, in large part due to heavy sanctions imposed by Trump, but the demands of the anti-government protesters were obscured earlier this month by the thousands who turned out for Suleimani’s funeral and anti-US protests that followed.

The US State Department endorsed those earlier protests, but Trump initially did not, later saying he did.

Iran dismissed that US support as “hypocritical,” and it is not clear how much of an effect the State Department’s statements and Trump’s tweets had on the demonstrations. Nor is it clear the demonstrators in the most recent protests will take Trump’s latest tweets as the words of an ally. As Vox’s Jen Kirby explained, Trump’s recent threat to bomb Iranian cultural sites eroded some Iranians’ trust in the US leader:

For some, the promise to attack cultural sites also proved that, despite all of Trump’s rhetoric, he — and maybe his administration, too — didn’t actually care about the Iranian people after all.

Maryam, the student from Kermanshah, said she once believed Trump separated the Iranian government from the people. That’s how she saw the economic sanctions: as punishment against the regime, not the people.

But when Trump threatened to bomb Iran’s cultural sites, she thought, what harm would that do to the government? None. “That’s when we realized he isn’t anti-regime, he’s just anti-Iranian all along, and we didn’t know it,” Maryam said.

Regardless of what Trump has to say about them — and the risks involved — the anti-government protests seem set to continue.

Journalist Yashar Ali reported that more protests are planned for Sunday night, and according to Reuters, protests continued in Tehran throughout the day Sunday with “scores” of demonstrators calling for government reforms.