Iran's use of the George Floyd protests to hit back at American exceptionalism could reap dividends.

Since the extremely disturbing killing of George Floyd last month and the subsequent unrest across major US cities, the rest of the world has been paying close attention to America’s internal crisis. 

Iran’s leadership has been particularly focused on racism, militarism, and police brutality in America and using several platforms to address it. 

On May 27, the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweeted a video about the history of slavery in America and African Americans suffering from human rights abuses. 

The tweet read: “If you're dark-skinned walking in the US, you can't be sure you'll be alive in the next few minutes. #ICantBreathe #BlackLivesMatter”. 

This month the Supreme Leader spoke directly about George Floyd’s death: “It is no novelty… It is what the US governments have been doing to the world.” Khamenei went on to say: “a cop kneeling on a black man’s neck and letting him choke to death… is the nature of the American government. They have done the same to such countries as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.” 

On June 4, President Hassan Rouhani delivered a televised speech about George Floyd, who “was killed in the most brutal way.” 

Rouhani accused “the rulers of the White House” of turning America’s national crisis “into one of the worst in history.”

Tehran’s chief diplomat put out a tweet calling on “the entire world to wage war against racism” while editing a press release from his American counterpart about protests in his country to make it read about police brutality and racial injustice in America (not Iran). 

On June 1, he drew a parallel between the “‘knee-on-neck’ technique” that led to George Floyd’s death and Washington’s “maximum pressure” agenda against Iran. 

From a press conference held at the Iranian capital, the foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi demanded that the US government “stop violence” against American citizens protesting the killing of George Floyd and to “let them breathe.” 

Mousavi said: “To the American people: the world has heard your outcry over the state of oppression… And to the American officials and police: stop violence against your people and let them breathe… We deeply regret to see the American people, who peacefully seek respect and no more violence, being suppressed indiscriminately and met with utmost violence.”

It’s not only the Iranian government that has shown sympathy for African Americans and sorrow for George Floyd. 

In Mashhad there was a vigil for the 46-year-old US citizen who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis. Students in Tehran also held a solidarity rally outside the Swiss embassy with participants chanting “Black Lives Matter.”

Lightning rod 

The Iranian press also has paid close attention to the situations unfolding in American cities. 

Historical context is important here. Iran’s engagement with African Americans dates back to an early stage of the Islamic Republic’s existence. 

Sixteen days into the 1979-1981 hostage crisis, Iran’s revolutionary leaders decided to free most of the African American hostages amid the embassy standoff. 

As Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini explained, he saw African Americans as an oppressed group and thus did not deserve to remain hostages. “Blacks for a long time have lived under oppression and pressure in America and may have been sent [to Iran under duress]” was how Khomeini justified their release. 

The Iranian government’s symbolic gestures of support for African Americans continued after the revolution. 

In 1984, the Islamic Republic issued a stamp of Malcom X to display solidarity on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. In fact, it was not until 15 years later when the US released a stamp of Malcom X.

In more recent times, Iran’s current Supreme Leader along with former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have put out messages on social media platforms addressing high-profile cases of African Americans killed by American police from Michael Brown to Freddie Gray and George Floyd. 

Amid the events that shook Ferguson, Baltimore, and other American cities in 2014, Khamenei used the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag from his twitter account. 

There is room to debate the Iranian government’s main motivation(s) for engaging with African Americans and expressing solidarity with them. 

Nonetheless, it is difficult to deny that as Trump administration officials routinely criticise Iran’s government for its human rights violations, the Islamic Republic’s leadership is keen to take advantage of an opportunity to point out the US leadership’s hypocrisy. 

Iran is not alone in doing so. For governments across the world that often receive harsh criticism from Washington, the ongoing rest in America and Trump’s authoritarian rhetoric is an invaluable opportunity to further weaken the perceived credibility that America has to criticise these countries on human rights grounds. 

Chinese government officials have also condemned (and even trolled) the US authorities for George Floyd’s killing and crackdown on the street protests that quickly followed. 

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao stated that “the death of George Floyd reflects the severity of racial discrimination and police brutality in the US.” 

The Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman Maria Zakharova asserted that “it’s time for the U.S. to drop the mentor’s tone and look in the mirror,” while insisting that American authorities “start respecting people’s rights and observing democratic standards at home.” 

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro recently delivered a speech condemning racism in the US and expressing solidarity with George Floyd’s family.

Iran’s overtures to African Americans in the current environment is consistent with the Islamic Republic’s longstanding tradition of expressing solidarity with this minority group. 

Yet what will come out of this for the Islamic Republic is unclear. 

Regardless, Iran is trying to connect with a segment of American society at a time in which relations between Washington and Tehran have drastically deteriorated. 

For the Iranian government, this is an exercise in public diplomacy that could potentially pay dividends down the road, even if in ways that might be difficult to imagine now.

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