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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Once again, American eyes glimpse Iranian political unrest

The sloganeering on the Iran protests cries out for context.

Women hold posters during a pro-government rally in

Women hold posters during a pro-government rally in the holy city of Qom, Iran, Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018. Photo Credit: AP

Mass demonstrations and clashes across Iran have prompted supportive remarks by U.S. politicians — reflecting a mainstream consensus here that the repressive and aggressive theocracy there needs to liberalize or fall.

“Iran must pay attention to voices of the courageous protesters speaking out for their rights and well-being. That is the only way forward,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

“We should speak loudly in support of the Iranian people and punish their oppressors to the fullest extent possible,” tweeted Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

While similar remarks came from supporters and foes of the controversial Iran nuclear deal, President Donald Trump focused in part on his predecessor, Barack Obama.

“All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their ‘pockets,’ ” Trump tweeted. It was unclear why “pockets” was in quotation marks and he didn’t elaborate on the allegations.

The sloganeering cries out for context.

Trump has talked of — but so far balked at — canceling the deal reached under Obama in 2015. Signed in tandem with Europe, the pact aimed to ensure Iran’s nuclear development would exclude weapons in exchange for lifting sanctions.

President Hassan Rouhani cited constitutional rights to free expression, even as crackdowns were expected to intensify. Iran’s more-powerful “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, tweeted: “In recent days, enemies of Iran used different tools including cash, weapons, politics and intelligence services to create troubles for the Islamic Republic.”

Khamenei was opaque as to whom he was blaming. Still, his remarks were widely interpreted as targeting, as usual, Israel and the U.S., but also Saudi Arabia, which forms a relatively new part of the backdrop.

Only two weeks ago, the kingdom announced it had intercepted a missile fired by Yemen’s Houthi rebels at Riyadh, the Saudi capital. Iran and Saudi Arabia are locked in a proxy war in Yemen. The Saudis blamed Iran.

The regional power fight — with a religious Sunni-versus-Shia overlay — long precedes 2011, when these rivals sided with opponents in different countries affected by the Arab Spring.

For its part, Russia seems to support Iran as an ally.

The official TASS news agency (a Cold War institution that still exists) called the protests “Iran’s internal affair.” It said: “External interference destabilizing the situation is inadmissible,” by which the propaganda network might have actually meant “unacceptable.”

Both Russia and Iran back Syrian President Bashar Assad with arms in that nation’s civil war.

In Iran, defining what the protests are about is key to how outsiders might react. This much is clear: Demonstrations broke out unexpectedly in Iran on Dec. 28 in what NPR calls “the conservative, religious city of Mashhad.”

As reported by the network: “The protests appear to be a reaction to government proposals to cut subsidies that keep prices down, though demonstrators have also called for the ouster of the country’s leaders.”

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