Special envoy defends US support for Iranian protesters

Robert Malley says Washington's role is one of supporting 'basic human rights’

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As the protest movement in Iran stretches into its sixth week, its longevity and growing influence is testing US foreign policy.

On Monday, the US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley doubled down on Washington's support for the women-led movement but cautioned that its “policy is not one of interfering to try to foment regime change”.

Speaking to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank, Mr Malley outlined the US government’s approach to the protests, which he said was predicated on supporting “basic human rights”.

He said the US is working to coalesce international support for the movement as well as make sure the world sees Tehran's brutal response to the protests.

The protests come at a complex time in US-Iran ties: Washington has spent the past 19 months pushing for a renewed nuclear deal, but Tehran appears to have stopped co-operating and is continuing its march towards developing a nuclear weapon.

“It's not on our agenda because nothing has changed. We're not going to focus on something that is inert when other things are happening,” Mr Malley said of the deal.

More than 230 people have been killed since the protests started on September 16 following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old student, while in the custody of the country’s morality police.

Amini’s death sparked outrage and inspired women across the country to demonstrate in the streets, often chanting “jin, jiyan, azadi”, which translates to “woman, life, freedom”.

Iranian security forces have cracked down on demonstrators but have been unable to suppress the movement.

The administration of US President Joe Biden has announced sanctions against Iranian officials for the brutal treatment of demonstrators and has also hit the country itself with sanctions for supplying drones and technical assistance to Russia to support its invasion of Ukraine.

The US also ordered military strikes in August against Iranian-backed militias in Syria in response to attacks on American forces in the region.

“We’re taking the action that we think is consistent and necessary to promote our values and our national security interests,” Mr Malley said.

Iran has a long history of protests and Washington has been reluctant to throw its support behind any popular uprisings after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, during which the US-supported shah was overthrown.

The US was slow to react to major protests in 2009 and again 2019, but the Biden administration has been vocal in its support of this movement.

Robert Malley is seen in Vienna, Austria, where nuclear deal talks were taking place earlier this year. AP

“The United States stands with Iranian women and all the citizens of Iran who are inspiring the world with their bravery,” Mr Biden said of the protesters.

Mr Malley was adamant that while the US supported the protests, it was not up to Washington to decide what happens in Iran.

“The future of this popular movement will be decided by the Iranian people, not by the United States, not by an outsider,” he said.

“It will be decided in Iran by Iranians.”

Updated: October 31, 2022, 5:52 PM