Donald Trump has purported to stand in solidarity with the “brave, long suffering people of Iran”, days after threatening to commit war crimes by destroying their cultural sites.
In a series of tweets written in Farsi and English, he claimed to have been an ally of the Iranian people throughout his presidency, despite having introduced measures to stop them entering the US with his so-called Muslim travel ban and subjecting them to harsh economic sanctions.
Days after committing what was widely seen as an act of war, Mr Trump urged the regime to uphold the human rights of hundreds of angry demonstrators, who turned out in Tehran to protest the “unintentional” shooting down of a Ukrainian plane.
The tragedy cost all 176 passengers their lives and, until Friday, the government knowingly denied responsibility.
The cover-up appears to have thrust into disarray the rare moment of national unity that followed the Trump-ordered assassination of Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, which is thought to have seen millions take part in unprecedented memorial proceedings.
Less than a week later, riot police fired tear gas at thousands of protesters – some of whom destroyed pictures of Soleimani, demanded president Hassan Rouhani’s resignation and criticised supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei with chants of “death to the dictator”.
In a sign of just how widespread anger at the authorities handling of the plane crisis may be, moderate newspapers carried the “people’s demand” for those responsible for the plane crisis to resign while the semi-official Fars news agency reported the protests in a rare report on anti-government unrest.
In a seemingly brazen attempt to paint himself as a friend of the Iranian people – and further undermine the country’s leadership – Mr Trump tweeted in Farsi: “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.
“The government of Iran must allow human rights groups to monitor and report facts from the ground on the ongoing protests by the Iranian people. There can not be another massacre of peaceful protesters, nor an internet shutdown. The world is watching.”
Anti-government protests, thought to be the largest demonstrations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, had rocked Iran in the months leading up to Soleimani’s death.
Between 300 and 1,500 people are believed to have been killed and thousands detained in the government’s violent repression – which the now-martyred Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds force commander was thought to have helped coordinate.
A government-imposed internet shutdown served to muddy details of the revolt and obscured the death toll. Protesters had initially gathered to oppose a hike in fuel prices, but the scope of their unprecedented anger soon grew to include corruption, poverty and their sense of an inability to change Iran’s status quo.
Donald Trump had placed Tehran under severe economic sanctions, which Washington described as a “maximum pressure campaign”.
The sanctions have placed immense strain on the country and its citizens, restricting access to basic healthcare and critical medications, and causing the cost of living to skyrocket. A UN envoy warned in mid-December of the risk of food shortages and the country becoming shut off from charitable and diplomatic international bodies.
Experts also suggested Mr Trump’s sanctions had played a role in the violent repression of protests.
“The regime, under tremendous outside pressure, decided to adopt an iron fist policy to make itself look strong and in control,” Sina Azodi, foreign policy advisor at the Washington risk assessor, Gulf State Analytics, previously told The Independent.
“The premise is that under economic pressure state has further securitised and is willing to use more violence to ensure that it doesn’t lose control. Appearing weak in the face of protests could send the signal that the regime is crumbling under outside pressure – and it’s the last thing they want to do,”
Many criticised the US president’s temerity in professing solidarity with Iranian citizens.
“Only on planet Trump can you ban Iranians from visiting their family in the US, deny them access to life-saving drugs, threaten to bomb their cultural heritage, and then claim that you are in solidarity with them,” said London School of Economics’ Rohan Alvandi, an associate professor of international history specialising in Iran.
Captioning the president’s words, Middle East analyst Sharmine Narwani said: “Trump: ‘I murdered your general, slapped on more sanctions and can’t find Iran on a map – but trust me’.”
But his call for Iran to honour human rights was welcomed.
“Well said, Donald Trump. Please now stand with the victims, dissidents and opponents of this brutal regime by rescinding the travel ban,” said UN Watch’s executive director, Hillel Neuer.
“Yes, keep out all tied to the regime. But Iranian refugees are the most incredible people who have contributed enormously to life in America.”
Hours before Mr Trump’s message in Farsi, US officials announced he would sign an executive order authorising new sanctions “against any individual owning, operating, trading with or assisting sectors of the Iranian economy, including construction, manufacturing, textiles, and mining”.
They will remain in place until Iran “changes its behaviour”, Mr Trump said.
Additional reporting by AP