LONDON – President Donald Trump appeared to temporarily break with his own stated Iran policy when he told a room full of reporters in London on Tuesday that his administration did not support recent violent protests in the Middle East nation.
During a question-and-answer session with media on the sidelines of a NATO meeting here, Trump was asked: "Does the United States support the protesters in Iran?"
The U.S. president replied: "I don’t want to comment on that, but the answer is no ."
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Trump later walked back his response, clarifying he thought the question he was asked was about financial support. The White House has imposed onerous sanctions on Iran since it withdrew from the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.
"We do support them totally and have supported them from the beginning," Trump said.
The State Department's official Iran policy, as has been repeatedly stated by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is that the U.S. opposes Iran's government, not its people. It claims that its renewed sanctions that target Iran's lucrative oil sector and other industries such as mining and metals are the most efficient way to bring Iran's government to heel over support for militant groups from Lebanon to Syria, and for its nuclear program, which Iran insists is for peaceful, civilian purposes only.
But there is good evidence, collected by USA TODAY and other news organizations who have reported from Iran, that the sanctions do hurt average Iranians, whether intended or not. This is largely because of "secondary sanctions." The Trump administration is not only preventing Iran from using the international financial system that enables it to export its oil, it also threatens to sanction any other country, organization or business that does business with Iran. And that means that many vital consumer goods and emergency medicines, including cancer drugs, are struggling to reach Iran despite Washington's insistence that it does not sanction humanitarian aid.
The protests in Iran accelerated late last month after gas prices were increased by 50% at a time when the sanctions reinstated by Trump have contributed to soaring inflation and stagnating salaries. The World Bank forecasts Iran's economy will shrink by 8.7% this year, a consequence of plummeting revenues from blocked oil exports and restrictions on its petrochemicals, metals and mining sectors. Iran's currency has lost more than half of its value against the dollar over the last two years.
Still, David Adesnik, director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank whose experts argue for a hawkish interpretation of Iran, and Saeed Ghasseminejad, an expert on Iran's economy, argue in an opinion piece published in The Hill on Tuesday that media coverage of the impact of Iran's sanctions is "likely inaccurate." It "reflects the tendency of Western correspondents to present the hardships they witness as the result of sanctions, despite substantial evidence that corruption and mismanagement bear much greater responsibility. The American media’s coverage of pharmaceutical shortages in Iran illustrates this trend," they say.
Rights group estimate that more than 200 Iranians were killed during the protests. But information about the scale, and severity, of dissent has been extremely difficult to verify because protests took place amid an Internet blackout imposed by Iran.
Trump said Tuesday in London that "Iran is killing perhaps thousands and thousands of people right now as we speak." Those numbers have not been confirmed, and they are far higher than any other previous estimates. Iran, meanwhile, has made a distinction between protesters and "rioters" and admits to cracking down on the latter.
It's not clear whether Trump simply misspoke Tuesday in his initial comment about not supporting the protests. Pompeo said nearly the exact opposite Monday, saying the White House supports "the freedom-seeking, the freedom-loving people" of Iran.
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"When I was in Iran in March there were people standing in lines to buy government rations and subsidized meat," Hoda Katebi, a Chicago-based Iranian American writer and community organizer told USA TODAY recently. "Nothing's coming in."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NATO meeting: Trump gets confused about his own stated Iran policy