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Glenn Greenwald on Iran Protests: Trump Tweets “Time for Change” While Backing Dictators Worldwide

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At least 22 people are dead and hundreds have been arrested, as Iranian authorities move to quell the largest anti-government protests since 2009. President Donald Trump responded to the protests on Monday in one of his first tweets of the new year, writing ”TIME FOR CHANGE!” “This is the same president who, not more than three months ago, announced a ban on Iranians from coming to the United States,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Glenn Greenwald. “He’s somebody who has aligned with the world’s worst, most savage dictators.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Today we spend the hour with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, as we look back at some of the major stories of 2017 and we look ahead to 2018. We begin with President Trump’s foreign policy in Iran, where at least 22 people are dead and hundreds have been arrested, as authorities used tear gas and water cannons to quell the largest anti-government protest since 2009. The protests, which began last week and quickly spread to cities across Iran, are targeting the country’s high unemployment, income inequality and housing costs. Protesters have also railed against Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani, On Sunday, Rouhani said Iranians have the right to protest, but said violence would be met with a firm response.

PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI: [translated] I ask all the security forces, the police forces, who have not behaved in a violent way toward the people, I ask them to exercise their restraint so that nobody is hurt. However, at the same time, in order to preserve our country, our nation, our tranquility and peace, for all of this, we must be firm and act decisively.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Donald Trump responded to the protests Monday in one of his first tweets of the new year, writing, quote, “Iran is failing at every level despite the terrible deal made with them by the Obama Administration. The great Iranian people have been repressed for many years. They are hungry for food & for freedom. Along with human rights, the wealth of Iran is being looted. TIME FOR CHANGE!” Trump tweeted. Meanwhile, the Iranian president, Rouhani, rebuffed President Trump’s comments.

PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI: [translated] This man, Donald Trump, in America, who today wants to sympathize with our people, has forgotten that just a few months ago he labeled the Iranian nation a terrorist nation. This person, who is against the Iranian nation to his core, he wants to feel sorry for Iranians? There is a question here. It is open to suspicion.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And President Trump just tweeted, “The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime. All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their 'pockets.' The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The U.S. is watching!” Trump tweeted just a few minutes ago.

Well, for more, we’re joined from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, by Glenn Greenwald, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and one of the founding editors of The Intercept.

Glenn, first of all, Happy New Year! I hope the news for you this year is good, at least better. Can you respond first to what is happening now in Iran, this outbreak of protest that surprised, clearly, not only the Iranian leadership, when it began at the end of last week, but people all over the world?

GLENN GREENWALD: So, Iran is an extremely sophisticated and complex country of 80 million people. And I think that when it comes to analyzing exactly what’s driving the protest in Iran, we ought to defer to Iranians, people who are steeped in Iran’s civil society, and ought to avoid the sort of overnight experts who tend to pop up in the West and opine on these matters from afar without much knowledge. Even within the commentariat of Iranians, you see conflicting accounts about whether the primary impetus is economic deprivation or agitation for greater political rights, whether it’s demands that the government reform or whether it’s an actual desire to change the government. So, I think, really, all we can say from afar is that protesting one’s own government without being shot in the street or arrested is a universal human right, and we ought to have solidarity with people who are agitating to make their government better.

But what I do think we can and have to comment on is the posture of the United States government and Western governments in terms of foreign policy and how they’re responding to the events in Tehran. That, I think, we can comment on meaningfully and should. I think it’s worth remembering that for a long time it has been the top item on the foreign policy agenda of lots of factions to have regime change in Iran. Going back to 2005, 2006, the neocon slogan, after they toppled Saddam Hussein, was “real men go to Tehran.” They were really most eager to facilitate regime change in Iran. And so, there’s a lot of interest in terms of agitating for instability in Iran from people who are pretending to care about the Iranian people, but who actually couldn’t care less about the Iranian people.

And you could start with Donald Trump, who, as you just noted, tweeted his grave concern for the welfare of Iranians. This is the same president who, not more than three months ago, announced a ban on Iranians from coming to the United States. He’s somebody who has aligned with the world’s worst, most savage dictators, including in Saudi Arabia and other places around the world. Lots of Western commentators who are posturing about being concerned about human rights in Iran are people in think tanks funded by other dictatorships and repressive tyrants in the same region. So I think we ought to be extremely skeptical when it comes to people like Donald Trump or people in Washington think tanks pretending that they’re wanting to intervene in Iran out of concern for human rights or for the welfare of the Iranian people. I think when it comes to foreign policy, the best thing we can hope for is that the United States stays out of what is a matter of political dispute inside Iran.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Glenn, and you mentioned Saudi Arabia. It’s not just Saudi Arabia, but we look at Egypt or the Philippines, all countries for which Trump has had praise for the dictators and the authoritarian leaders of these countries. And now to suddenly, at lightning speed, come up with comments about the rights of the Iranian people to rise up against their leaders is—it is—well, it shouldn’t be surprising for Trump, but it certainly gives food for thought for anyone who thinks that this administration has any concerns about human rights.

GLENN GREENWALD: Yeah. I mean, first of all, the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy, really in the wake of World War II through the Cold War, and then even with the fall of the Soviet Union, has been to align with and to embrace and to support dictators, tyrants and repressive regimes, as long as they serve the interests of the United States. So, anybody in their right mind who ever takes seriously pronouncements from official Washington that they’re motivated by anger over repression or a defense of the political rights of people in other countries is incredibly naive at best, to put that generously.

Just this week, Juan, there was an amazing leak that Politico published, which was a State Department memo written to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that explicitly said what has been long obvious, but usually isn’t put into words so clear, that human rights is not actually something the U.S. government believes in; it is a cudgel that it uses to undermine and bash countries that don’t serve its interests. They use denunciations of human rights abuses to undermine and weaken governments that are contrary to their agenda, like in Iran, while at the same time, this memo said—this isn’t me saying this, this is the State Department memo saying—they overlook and even sanction repressive behavior on the part of their allies.

And it goes beyond the Trump administration. I mean, if you look at how official Washington works in terms of, say, the leading think tanks in Washington, the Brookings Institution, for example, which has become incredibly popular among liberals in the Trump era, is funded with tens of millions of dollars by the government of Qatar, one of the most repressive regimes on the planet. The Center for American Progress, which is probably the leading Democratic Party think tank in the United States, is funded in—one of their biggest funders is the government of the United Arab Emirates.

So, when you hear people like that or people in the Trump administration, who have aligned themselves with the world’s most savage dictators for decades, who are funded by tyrants, pretend that what they’re motivated by is a desire to liberate people from oppression, you should instantly know that there are other agendas going on. And the reason that matters so much is because it’s not just, “Oh, we’re exposing hypocrisy or deceit”; it’s because what someone’s motives are when they intervene in the affairs of other countries determines the outcome. Look what happened in Libya, where people like Anne-Marie Slaughter and Hillary Clinton and John Kerry pretended to be motivated by the interest of the Libyan people. Once Gaddafi was killed and was removed from office, which was what the real goal was, everybody forgot about Libya, allowed Libya to fall into utter chaos, militia rule. The slave trade has returned there. ISIS is reigning. Because when you don’t actually care about the interests of the people of the country you’re intervening in, you’re only pretending to as the pretext for it, it really alters the outcome in ways that are never desirable.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the significance of what’s happening in Iran for protests around the world, the message that it’s sending—something that President Trump might not be as interested in—and what it means for the nuclear deal, the Iran nuclear deal that Trump is trying to pull out of?

GLENN GREENWALD: Right. So, I think that one of the interesting aspects of this kind of cynical and manipulative behavior when it comes to pretending to side with protesters, when in reality the agenda is much different, is that it can actually, in a very unintended way, spark protests and the right of rebellion elsewhere. And that’s why I said at the start, although we shouldn’t opine on the internal affairs of Iran from a distance, because it’s too complicated and kind of opaque for us to really meaningfully do that, what we can and should do is affirm the right of people everywhere to protest against their government without being imprisoned, without being detained, without being shot at with tear gas canisters and without being killed, all of which is happening in Iran.

And so, when Donald Trump, even as manipulative as it is, upholds this value, I do think it can spark protests and this kind of ethos of reform and rebellion and people going out onto the streets and demanding government treatment far beyond what he might intend. Here in the United States, of course, there has been probably the most robust protest, against the Trump administration, that we’ve seen in the United States in probably a few decades. He doesn’t seem to like protest very much in the United States. His Justice Department is prosecuting protesters. But I do think that when you see things like what’s going on in Iran—really poor people, without any political rights, in the streets standing up against a repressive government—it can inspire people around the world to do the same.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, we’re going to break, and when we come back, well, we are going to have a wide-ranging discussion, but we want to begin with your latest piece, “Facebook Says It Is Deleting Accounts at the Direction of the U.S. and Israeli Governments.” We’re speaking with the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, one of the founding editors of The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald. He’s joining us from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Stay with us.

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