Furious Iranian protesters took to the streets for the third straight day Monday as anger with leadership in Tehran reached a boiling point, while the Trump administration seized on the popular uprising as a potential game-changer in the struggle between the Iranian people and their government.
Amid reports of Iranian security deploying tear gas and possibly opening fire on demonstrators, Tehran scrambled to tamp down mounting outrage over its admission that military forces inadvertently brought down a civilian airliner last week and killed all 176 people on board.
The shocking incident, an apparent fog-of-war incident at the height of U.S.-Iranian tensions, quickly changed the dynamic on the ground inside Iran and shifted popular anger away from the U.S. and toward the Iranian government — as evidenced by the fact that protesters on Monday refused to trample an American flag and instead ramped up their calls for the resignation of top Iranian leaders.
President Trump and top administration officials openly encouraged the demonstrations and called on the Iranian government to steer clear of the kind of violent crackdowns that have marked previous rounds of protests.
But much like Tehran, Washington also struggled to manage the fallout from its almost-war with Iran, as the president faced a mounting backlash over the White House’s shifting rationale for the U.S. air strike last week that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
“The president and his foreign policy team have insisted that the world is a much safer place today,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, New York Democrat, said on the Senate floor Monday.
“In recent weeks, however, the president’s actions have increased the risk of Iran, pushed Russia to develop a nuclear weapon, weakened our ability to fight ISIS, and strengthened the hands of Russia and China in the Middle East at America’s expense. How … is the world a much safer place today than when President Trump took action? It’s not.”
Mr. Trump stood by murky claims that Soleimani was plotting “imminent” attacks on numerous American embassies abroad — but also asserted the U.S. would have been justified even without those new threats, given Soleimani’s history of violence targeting the U.S. and its allies.
“The Fake News Media and their Democrat Partners are working hard to determine whether or not the future attack by terrorist Soleimani was ‘imminent’ or not, & was my team in agreement,” the president said in a Twitter post. “The answer to both is a strong YES, but it doesn’t really matter because of his horrible past!”
The Washington debate over the immediate need to kill Soleimani — and over the definition of the word “imminent” — sparked a heated battle Capitol Hill Monday, with some of the president’s supporters casting Democrats as being sympathetic toward to Iran. The debate also led the president to retweet an image showing Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York wearing a turban and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California wearing a hijab, along with the phrase “Democrats 2020.”
The retweet drew fierce condemnation from Muslim groups and other critics who cast the image as insensitive and racist.
“The tweet that the president broadcast to his 70.9 million followers on Twitter is a confused hodgepodge of anti-Muslim tropes commonly used to stereotype and attack Muslims,” said Farhana Khera, executive director of the group Muslim Advocates.
Protesters openly chanted “Death to the dictator,” referring to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and called for the nation’s top political leaders to step down.
The widescale demonstrations began shortly after Iran, in the face of global condemnation and mounting evidence, was forced to admit that it accidentally shot down the Ukrainian airliner last week.
The Jan. 8 shootdown came just hours after Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at U.S. military bases in Iraq, bringing the two countries to the doorstep of all-out war.
Iranian citizens had seemed relatively united against America as the two nations inched toward conflict, but that attitude had virtually disappeared by Monday. Numerous media outlets reported that protesters in Tehran refused to walk across U.S. and Israeli flags — actions that traditionally have been commonplace in the streets of Iran.
Instead, protesters shouted that their own government is “lying” to them by making repeated claims that the U.S. is their enemy. Reuters reported that a group of students in Tehran also chanted “Clerics get lost,” a sign that at least a segment of the Iranian population is increasingly willing to speak out against the country’s religious leaders.
Iranian security forces reportedly dispersed crowds with tear gas. Video footage that surfaced Monday also appeared to show security forces using live ammunition against protesters.
One video in particular shows a woman being dragged away with blood visible on the ground as protesters shouted that she’d been shot.
Iranian officials denied using gunfire.
“Police treated people who had gathered with patience and tolerance,” Tehran police chief Gen. Hossein Rahimi said, according to Iran state-run media. “Police did not shoot in the gatherings since broad-mindedness and restraint has been the agenda of the police forces of the capital.”
The U.S. has issued harsh warnings against the use of violence on protesters. Mr. Trump on Sunday tweeted out the warning “DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS,” while reminding Tehran’s leaders that the world is watching how the government responds.
Iranian officials, after adamantly denying for days that a missile had taken down the Ukrainian Airlines plane shortly after takeoff, now say they will cooperate with all investigations and consider requests for compensation. Kyiv’s top security official said a senior Iranian investigator would visit soon to determine whether a Ukrainian laboratory is suitable to decode the plane’s black box flight recorders, the Reuters news service reported.
Canada’s Transportation Safety Board said Monday that Iranian officials have invited board officials to participate in analysis of the voice and flight data recorders from doomed flight that included 57 Canadian passengers.
Reuters also reported that Ukraine’s foreign minister said Monday that five nations that had citizens on the flight, including Ukraine, Canada, Afghanistan, Sweden and an unnamed fifth country, plan to meet in London next week to discuss potential joint legal action.
Top administration officials repeated those warnings Monday. At the same time, they held up the protests as evidence of diminishing faith in the Iranian government.
“Right now the brave Iranian people are likewise taking to the streets in astounding numbers. They’re burning posters and billboards with his face on them, and chanting ‘Soleimani is a murderer,’” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a speech Monday at the Hoover Institution, according to a transcript of his prepared remarks.
“They know he was one of the key architects of their oppression,” he said. “The United States is with them in their calls for freedom and justice … in their justified anger at the ayatollah and his minions. And I repeat President Trump’s insistence that Iran not harm a single protestor. The world must do the same.”
The Quinnipiac University Poll said in a new poll Monday that 45% of voters thought the killing made Americans less safe, however, while 32% though it improved safety and 18% said it had no impact. Even so, a majority of voters (58%) do not think tensions with Iran will topple into a war and nearly two-thirds — 64 percent — said they would oppose war with Iran.
Mr. Pompeo also faced fire from Democrats Monday for refusing to appear before a House committee and answer questions about the Soleimani strike scheduled for Tuesday. Top Democrats such as Mr. Schumer attacked the administration’s broad argument that taking out Soleimani has made the U.S. safer and what they said were the shifting and at time conflicting rationales offered by Mr. Trump and his advisers.
Later Monday, Mr. Trump fired back at Democrats and suggested that he’ll use the issue as a key weapon in his 2020 reelection campaign.
“We killed Soleimani, the No. 1 terrorist in the world by every account. Bad person, killed a lot of Americans, killed a lot of people. We killed him,” the president told reporters at the White House. “And when the Democrats try and defend him, it’s a disgrace to our country.”
• Lauren Meier contributed to this report.
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