President Trump started the New Year with a foreign policy offensive on his return to the White House. Through Tweets and Press Briefings, he is piling pressure on Iran, Pakistan and the Palestinians as he switches his focus beyond tax reform and domestic issues.
The anti-government protests rocking Iran have been seized upon by the White House as glittering vindication of its criticisms of the Obama administration’s approach to the leadership in Tehran.
President Donald Trump and other senior administration figures are loudly cheering the Iranian demonstrators, sensing an opportunity for both an international win and a chance to make up for what they have long declared as one of President Barack Obama’s great failures.
Trump, especially, has been eager to use his support for the protesters as a cudgel against one of his favorite targets, the Iran nuclear deal.
“The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their ‘pockets.’ The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The U.S. is watching!”
Vice President Mike Pence, too, has sought to use the moment as a political weapon. In a Voice of America interview he recorded with Greta Van Susteren addressing the Iranian people, he slammed President Barack Obama for “deafening silence” in response to earlier protests.
“We looked to the White House in those days in 2009,” he said in the interview, which was set to air in Iran on Wednesday. “We looked for American leadership, and there was none.”
Pence returned to the point time and again, stating later in the interview: “Look, the last administration not only was silent when the good and courageous people of Iran were rising up for democracy, but they also pushed forward and embraced the disastrous Iran nuclear deal that President Trump refused to recertify and we’re continuing to provide leadership on.”
The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, added on Tuesday: “Even Hillary Clinton outlined this when she said that the Obama administration was too restrained of the 2009 protests and said that won’t happen again. And, for once, she’s right and we agree with her because President Trump is not going to sit by silently like President Obama did. And he certainly supports the Iranian people and wants to make that clear.”
The White House’s vocal support for the protesters puts it in line with the Republican establishment, as well as with many prominent Democrats who have shared the administration’s position, albeit without the criticism of Obama.
One senior administration official rejected the notion that highlighting the contrasts with Obama was an effort to score political points, saying the White House was simply laying out substantive differences with the previous administration.
“We want to make a clear distinction, and we’re not going to shy away from saying we’re approaching this completely differently,” the official said.
And while the White House sees that distinction as vindication as it accuses Obama of feckless leadership on Iran, it doesn’t see the issue through a purely partisan lens, the official said, adding that there was “bipartisan support” for the administration’s handling of the unrest.
The vice president, who was vocal in his support of Iranian protesters in 2009, sought to highlight the point on Monday, tweeting out statements of support from prominent Democrats and writing: “Protesters in Iran should know there’s bipartisan support in America for the freedom-loving people of Iran who continue to fight against their government’s corruption and tyranny.”
As a congressman from Indiana who was part of an effort to pass a resolution of support for Iranian protesters in 2009, Pence is again trying to find a consensus in Congress for action. He held phone calls with the leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), on Wednesday.
A White House spokesman defended the administration’s approach.
“Unlike during the previous administration, this President is not afraid to call out a brutal regime undermining basic human rights,” said the spokesman, Raj Shah. “The Trump administration is contemplating further action to support the Iranian people.”
The White House has woven attacks on the Obama administration into its statements of support for the Iranian protesters, but other officials have taken a different tack. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has sought to rally international support for the protesters, declaring, “We must not be silent.”
In 2009, Obama’s White House condemned violence against the protesters but did not, as Trump has done, promise some form of American assistance.
“As soon as violence broke out — in fact, in anticipation of potential violence — we were very clear in saying that violence was unacceptable, that that was not how governments operate with respect to their people,” Obama said in response to criticism at the time.
Ned Price, a former CIA officer and National Security Council aide under Obama, said that Trump’s team approaches “every issue … in terms of Obama versus Trump.”
“When you look at what President Obama said in 2009, it’s not all that different from what President Trump is saying now,” Price said, calling Trump’s offers of support “meaningless” because they lacked specificity.
And Trump’s past silence on human rights abuses — especially in places like Saudi Arabia and China, which have sought to cultivate positive relationships with the president — further undermine his credibility on the issue, Price said.
“There’s a myth that Donald Trump never speaks of human rights,” Price said. “He does, but he only does so selectively. When you don’t uphold human rights and you don’t speak out on human rights everywhere, then your efforts don’t carry water anywhere.”