As protesters march in Iran, the U.S. government has emerged as a brave champion of human rights. “The great Iranian people have been repressed for many years,” noted Donald Trump on Twitter. Mike Pence saluted them for “rising up to demand freedom and opportunity” and endorsed their “unalienable right to chart their own future.”
The president and vice president are inordinately proud of themselves for saying such things. But every administration statement on Iran should carry a qualifier: “Void in Saudi Arabia.” The noble phrases only serve to highlight the White House’s hypocrisy.
The Trump who laments the lack of freedom in Iran is the same one who traveled to Riyadh to celebrate “the magnificent Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” and assure his hosts, “We are not here to tell other people how to live.” Instead, he said, “we are here to offer partnership based on shared interests and values.”
With Iran, Trump threatens new sanctions. With Saudi Arabia, he bragged of signing a big arms deal.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has explained such discrepancies with unwitting candor. “It doesn’t mean that we don’t advocate for and aspire to freedom, human dignity and the treatment of people the world over. We do,” he said, before adding: “But that doesn’t mean that’s the case in every situation.” In other words, we champion for Iranians rights that we would never demand for Saudis.
The double standard isn’t new. In 1981, Ronald Reagan’s defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, vowed not to allow “a hopelessly repressive, medieval government, such as has taken over in Iran, to take over in Saudi Arabia” — somehow overlooking that the Saudis already had their own repressive, medieval government.
They still do. Saudi Arabia is even less free than Iran, according to the human rights group Freedom House. Of all the governments on earth, the Christian rights group Open Doors ranks it the 14th-worst in persecuting Christians. “Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world without any church buildings,” it says — an achievement that surely deserves notice from Pence.
Shared values? What would those be?
Certainly not rejection of extremist violence. “The Saudis are the world’s largest sponsor of terrorism,” writes journalist David Cay Johnston in his new book, “It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America.” “The State Department lists 61 terrorist organizations, all but two of which are aligned with Sunnis and the extreme Wahhabi sect that is officially endorsed in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis fund 57 of those terrorist groups.”
But the administration is too intent on defaming Barack Obama to care. Pence claims that when Iranians protested in 2009, “the United States stayed silent,” a shameful decision that “emboldened Iran’s tyrannical rulers to crack down on the dissent.”
This is nonsense piled on fraud. In the first place, Obama was not silent in 2009. “We must also bear witness to the courage and the dignity of the Iranian people and to a remarkable opening within Iranian society,” he said. “And we deplore the violence against innocent civilians anywhere that it takes place.” The mullahs no more needed Obama’s permission to crack down than Trump needs Pence’s permission to play golf.
Obama did strive not to let the Iranian opposition be convincingly tarred as our stooges. In Iran, when a U.S. president says “time for change!” — as Trump did — hackles rise. Iranians remember 1953, when the CIA helped overthrow a democratic government and install a despot. They also remember when President George W. Bush lumped Iran with Iraq and North Korea in the “axis of evil” — before invading Iraq and unleashing disaster.
Obama’s temperate tactics on Iran may have been unsuccessful, but that wouldn’t make Trump’s approach any more promising. He has zero credibility on human rights, thanks to his affection for such autocrats as Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
Imagine how Americans would react if an unsavory foreign leader — say Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — spoke up to endorse Black Lives Matter. Most would think he was way out of line. Iranians could likewise resent U.S. sermonizing.
Maybe vocal American support will hearten the Iranian dissidents. Maybe it will burden them. Most likely, it won’t make any discernible difference.
By pretending that they prize human rights above all, Trump and Pence will impress supporters here at home. But that noise you hear is the rest of the world, laughing out loud.
Chapman writes for the Chicago Tribune as well as being syndicated columnist.