Foreign Policy | NED PRICE: The protests that roiled Iran over the past two weeks had little to do with the United States or its foreign policy. Despite concerted efforts on the part of the Trump administration to portray the movement as a repudiation of President Barack Obama’s approach to the regime in Tehran, the unrest in Iranian cities and towns appears to be an organic uprising, the leaders of which would doubtlessly take umbrage at the idea that they were galvanized by the United States.
The protests have, nevertheless, cast a spotlight on the Trump administration’s foreign policy. Specifically, they have helped dispel a myth that President Donald Trump entirely ignores human rights in the pursuit of a realist, America-first agenda. His true approach is even more harmful to U.S. credibility. In the case of Iran, the administration has put out a slew of tweets and statements in support of the protestors’ quest for political reforms, underlining Trump’s selective approach to pressing for rights that other presidents, both Democrats and Republicans, described as universal. This approach — harping on some adversaries’ human rights records while otherwise turning a blind eye — shatters U.S. credibility and moral authority on the matter. Far from empowering the Iranian protestors, the Trump administration’s bald-faced hypocrisy rings hollow and plays into the hands of Iranian hardliners.
There’s no arguing with the idea that the Trump administration has sidelined human rights among the panoply of foreign policy concerns and priorities. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been the most explicit in explaining how human rights under Trump take a backseat. He surprised State Department employees in May 2017 by distinguishing American interests from values, going on to say that an emphasis on values “creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.”
These were the words of a former oil tycoon accustomed to putting the bottom line above all else. But the White House’s foreign policy record soon began to show that they applied across the administration. Trump’s first overseas trip took him to Saudi Arabia, where, rather than offer words of support for freedom of expression and gender equality, for example, he spoke of “shared interests and values” between Washington and Jeddah. The United States and Saudi Arabia do have shared priorities, but — in a country where women are second-class citizens and the Ritz-Carlton can be turned into a long-term penitentiary at a moment’s notice — values are not among them.
To be sure, the allure of petroleum reserves blinded other American presidents, who otherwise championed human rights, but this wasn’t about oil for Trump. He ignored human rights in his dealings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, welcomed Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to the White House, heartily congratulated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his consolidation of power, joined in on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s denigration of the press, and of course, has never once criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin’s disdain for human rights, at one point turning the question around by asking: “You think our country’s so innocent?”
Were that the full story, the Trump foreign policy could be neatly characterized as realpolitik, putting interests ahead of values. It would be atypical of modern American presidents, but certainly not of leaders over the longer arc of history.
What makes this administration’s approach different — and especially counterproductive — is the fact that human rights purportedly are among its top priorities in a handful of countries: Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, and, as we’ve heard in recent weeks, Iran. To listen to the Trump administration describe it, citizens of these countries yearn to be free, and the policy of the United States is to support those aspirations, including with the potential use of military force in some cases. It just so happens that the targets of the administration’s human rights push are all among its political nemeses, for reasons ranging from domestic politics in the case of Cuba to legitimate national security threats in the case of North Korea.
As if this approach weren’t clear, a top State Department aide made it explicit in a memo for Tillerson, acquired by Politico last month. The memo stated that “allies should be treated differently — and better — than adversaries” in the context of human rights, later adding that pressing adversaries constitutes a way to “impose costs, apply counter-pressure, and regain the initiative from them strategically.” In other words, even when the administration’s rhetoric is about human rights and values, it’s really not about that at all. To this team, the rhetoric of human rights is a mere cudgel to use against political adversaries when convenient.
The trouble is that America’s adversaries — as well as its brave citizens agitating for change — can see through this as easily as Americans can. Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in the wake of the Trump administration’s statements, predictably blamed the protests on foreign agitators. More tellingly, Mohammed Khatami, a moderate cleric and former Iranian president who has advocated for economic reform, earlier this month accused the United States of taking advantage of the unrest for its own ends — just as the State Department memo recommended.
Meanwhile, the Iranian people have greeted America’s rhetorical support with, at best, collective shrug. Their reaction almost certainly owes to their interest in not being cast as foreign-backed. But presumably, too, the administration’s support is tainted by the naked opportunism driving its human rights agenda. The hypocrisy is even more striking for Iranians, nearly all of whom the Trump administration has attempted to bar from traveling to the United States. It’s understandably difficult to fathom how the America could be standing with them — as long as they don’t attempt to enter the country.
The Iranian protests cast this hypocrisy in stark relief. The Trump administration has made a mockery of America’s word when it comes to human rights. If the country’s moral authority and credibility is to mean anything, we must press for universal rights and liberties universally, both when it is politically convenient and not. Indeed, unless we take this approach everywhere — with friend and foe alike — America’s support won’t mean anything anywhere.