Elephants in the Room

A U.S. President Is Finally Speaking Up for the People of Iran

At his speech to the U.N., Trump put the plight of Iranians front and center.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 19:  President Donald Trump speaks to world leaders at the 72nd United Nations (UN) General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on September 19, 2017 in New York City. This is Trump's first appearance at the General Assembly where he addressed threats from Iran and North Korea among other global concerns.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 19: President Donald Trump speaks to world leaders at the 72nd United Nations (UN) General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on September 19, 2017 in New York City. This is Trump's first appearance at the General Assembly where he addressed threats from Iran and North Korea among other global concerns. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A note about the Iran section of President Donald Trump’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly. While his lambasting of the nuclear deal garnered the greatest attention, it would be a mistake to overlook his extended focus on the plight of the Iranian people. It’s almost certainly significant — an important indicator of the administration’s future direction when it comes to Iran policy.

By my count, in the speech’s several paragraphs devoted to Iran, at least 11 of 17 sentences served to highlight specific ways that the regime has failed the Iranian people. Thus, the regime “masks a corrupt dictatorship behind the false guise of democracy.” It “has turned a wealthy country with a rich history and culture into an economically depleted rogue state” whose “longest-suffering victims … are, in fact, its own people.” Rather than using Iran’s vast oil profits to “improve Iranian lives,” the regime wastes this wealth — “which rightly belongs to the Iranian people” — on foreign adventures, from “fund[ing] Hezbollah and other terrorists that kill innocent Muslims” to “shor[ing] up Bashar al-Assad’s criminal dictatorship, fuel[ing] Yemen’s civil war, and undermin[ing] peace throughout the Middle East.”

The entire world knows, Trump concluded, that “the good people of Iran want change” and that “Iran’s people are what their leaders fear the most.” That is why the mullahs “restrict internet access, tear down satellite dishes, shoot unarmed student protesters, and imprison political reformers.” Trump finished with the provocative prediction that “oppressive regimes cannot endure forever” and that the day will come when Iran’s people face a choice: “To continue down the path of poverty, bloodshed and terror” or “return to the nation’s proud roots as a center of civilization, culture and wealth where their people can be happy and prosperous once again?”

It was relentless and quite remarkable. Unprecedented even. I can’t recall any previous U.S. president using their speech to the General Assembly to address the longstanding grievances of the Iranian people in such a sustained and comprehensive manner. It definitely never happened during the eight years of Barrack Obama’s presidency. Quite the opposite. Not even in his first U.N. address in September 2009, with the Green Revolution at its height and young Iranian protesters chanting, “Obama, you are either with us or with them [the regime],” did the 44th president deign to deliver a single word of solace to those being mowed down in the streets of Tehran.

So Trump’s systematic appeal to the Iranian people was striking, to say the least. It hit on some of their deepest complaints: A phony democracy in which unelected theocrats lord over elected presidents. Massive corruption. Economic stagnation. The waste of national patrimony on foreign aggressions that besmirch a proud civilization’s good name. Vicious oppression.

Trump was also spot on in his claim that the mullahs fear nothing so much as their own people. Anyone who has spent any time tracking the preoccupations of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is well aware of his absolute obsession with Western cultural penetration, the lack of revolutionary fervor among Iranian youth, and the so-called “sedition” of 2009 that came perilously close to upending the regime. The Islamic Revolution is ideologically, politically, and morally bankrupt in the eyes of vast numbers of its own people. It survives now largely on the basis of fear, oppression, targeted patronage, and inertia. In identifying Iran’s disgruntled populace as the regime’s achilles heel, Trump almost certainly has Khamenei’s number — whether or not U.S. policy can actually do anything about it.

It’s hard not to see President Trump’s focus on Iran’s domestic situation as quite purposeful. Heretofore, it’s never been a feature of his statements on Iran. That it figured so prominently at the General Assembly was almost certainly a calculated decision of significant import. The speech was weeks in the making. It went through multiple drafts and reflected major input not only from the president, but from the most important members of his national security team. And, don’t forget, it came as the administration is nearing completion of its comprehensive review of Iran policy. No, these weren’t merely some throwaway lines inserted for rhetorical flourish. Far more likely, they represent a considered policy choice by the Trump administration that supporting the longterm struggle of the Iranian people against the regime needs to be an essential prong of America’s strategy to combat the Islamic Republic.

It is worth noting that Trump’s focus on the Iranian people was matched by a powerful statement from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In his speech at the U.N., Netanyahu directed his message directly at the Iranian people. “You are our friends,” he said — and then he said it again in Farsi. He went on: “One day, my Iranian friends, you will be free from the evil regime that terrorizes you, hangs gays, jails journalists, tortures political prisoners, and shoots innocent women like Neda Soltan [a Green Revolution protester], leaving her choking on her own blood in the streets of Tehran…. And when that day of liberation finally comes, the friendship between our two ancient peoples will surely flourish once again.”

A decision by both the U.S. and Israeli governments to invest significant time, energy, and resources into strengthening the Iranian people in their struggle against the regime could get very interesting. Especially if they actually combined forces. Especially if they were able to draw other allies and partners into the effort. Especially if it was one element of a broader strategy to combat and contain Iranian aggression. It’s certainly a policy that has never been seriously pursued by the U.S. government before — despite the fact that it plays on one of Iran’s greatest vulnerabilities. If Trump is able to successfully orchestrate such a campaign, we may well look back on this week’s speech and conclude that his comments on the nuclear deal were only the second most important thing that he had to say about America’s Iran policy.

Photo credit: SPENCER PLATT/Getty Images

John Hannah is a senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney.

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