Ultraconservatives in Iran have seized upon the wave of protests against police brutality and racism in the United States to highlight the failings of their longtime adversary and to herald its “collapsing regime.”
In recent days, the front pages of hardline newspapers and news agencies have been flooded with pictures of protests in various US cities.
Headlines describe how law enforcement authorities, instructed by President Donald Trump, have cracked down on demonstrators. Apocalyptic projections about the imminent downfall of the United States and “imperialism” are ubiquitous.
“Washington Collapsed!” proclaimed the right-wing Mashregh News agency, which published a video of protesters vandalizing a statue of George Washington in the US capital on its website.
Kayhan, the most notable conservative newspaper in Iran, ran four images of protests and people’s face-offs with the police in the US on the front page of its June 6 edition, running the headline “The situation in America is like a collapsing regime.”
References to and photos of unrest in the United States have been a fixture of Kayhan’s front pages since the agonizing police killing of George Floyd on May 25 seized global attention.
Iranian state TV stations, including the international broadcaster Press TV, are also dedicating extensive coverage to the dilemma of racism in America, featuring leftist activists and commentators criticizing the United States for its historic problem with African-American rights.
Iran’s friends in the region have followed suit. In Lebanon, the pro-Hezbollah newspaper Al-Akhbar on June 6 ran a front page titled “America Divided,” accompanied by a photo of a sea of American protesters raising their fists.
Abbas Mousavi, the spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran, offered a rare English language message to the “American people” in his press briefing last week.
“The world has heard your outcry over state oppression. The world is standing with you. The American regime is pursuing violence and bullying at home and abroad,” he said, his voice trembling.
“We deeply regret to see the American people who peacefully seek respect and no more violence are suppressed indiscriminately and met with the utmost violence,” he added.
His boss, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in a Tweet, compared the police knee on George Floyd’s neck to the US maximum pressure campaign strangling the Iranian economy.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei tweeted: “The people’s slogan of #ICantBreathe, which can be heard in the massive protests throughout the US, is the heartfelt words of all nations against which the US has committed many atrocities.”
The Iranian focus on racism in America is not without precedent.
In 1979, two weeks into the US hostage crisis, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordered clemency for the African Americans as well as women among the US embassy staff, citing their historic oppression.
“Blacks for a long time have lived under oppression and pressure in America and may have been sent [to Iran under duress],” the supreme leader explained at the time.
In the 40 years that followed the Islamic Revolution, proclamations of the decline of US capitalism and imperialism, and the disintegration of American society, have invariably constituted the talking points of the Iranian authorities.
Iranian authorities have spared no opportunity to vilify the “Great Satan” and they do not miss occasions like the one presented by the shocking murder of an African-American man to insist that they are right when they disparage the United States and American culture as “decadent” and “corrupt.”
The solemn statements by the authorities over the murder of Floyd have been met with derision by some Iranians, who have responded by calling to mind the recent killings of protesters in Iran.
“If the killing of an African-American [man] in the United States is so important, how did you kill 230 people in demonstrations and wound more than 2,000 others, based on your own figures?” demanded Faezeh Hashemi, a prominent women’s rights activist and the daughter of the late Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Hashemi was referring to the details of the casualties of November 2019 protests, which were disclosed on June 1 by the hardline member of parliament Mojtaba Zonnour almost six months after the government of Hassan Rouhani refused to release an official death toll.
On social media, many Iranians invoked memories of the crackdown against Iran’s 2009 Green Movement and the more recent economic protests of last November.
Others pointed to the January shoot-down of Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 and the government’s botched response. Critics of state policy have called on their officials to fix the numerous problems Iran is facing domestically, rather than being concerned about racial discrimination in the United States thousands of miles away.
“Of course, objecting to the US government and federal police is the right thing to do at this moment, and systemic racism in the United States and the clampdown on protesters should be censured. But such a protest can be honest only when we are not suppressive and oppressive ourselves,” said Sepideh Jodeyri, an Iranian poet and activist, now living in Washington.
Others have gone so far as to compare the protests taking place in the United States with their own struggles against the ruling authorities.
“Demonstrations in both countries represent deep societal anger by those who are discriminated against, live in poverty or close to it, and demand a better life and elimination of discrimination,” said Muhammad Sahimi, an Iranian political commentator and professor at the University of Southern California.
“The ruling elite in both Iran and the United States want, however, to preserve the status quo and, therefore, react fundamentally in the same way. Of course, the US has democratic institutions and strong civil society organizations that defend the people against the state, whereas Iran does not,” he told Asia Times.
Jodeyri says the economic paradigm ruling Iran is no different than the United States, rendering the anti-capitalist, anti-American approach of the Iranian government hypocritical.
“Somebody should tell the Iranian leadership the economic model in place in their country is also predicated on capitalism, and even worse, rentier capitalism, which is highly unequal, underpinning horrible social divides. So, what is it that you are opposing to? What is the anti-capitalist, anti-American gesture you’re taking?”
Black Lives Matter solidarity demonstrations have erupted in nearly 30 countries thus far, but have been notably absent in Iran. The general population appears too preoccupied with their own economic and social challenges to stage rallies over the vexations of life in another country.