clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Iran’s Supreme Leader goes after the US on Ferguson

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

This series of tweets from Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, about the violent police misconduct in Ferguson, makes a good run at defining the word "chutzpah:"

Khamenei is a odd person to be criticizing violent police crackdowns on peaceful protestors. In June 2009, his government did exactly that after conservative presidential candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won reelection in a close vote amid heavy allegations of fraud. Hundreds of thousands of people who supported reformist candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi protested, especially in Tehran, but were suppressed violently — and in some cases fatally — by police and security forces.

An Iranian riot policeman beats a protestor during 2009 demonstrations. STR/AFP/Getty Images

An Iranian riot policeman beats a protestor during 2009 demonstrations. STR/AFP/Getty Images

This movement, collectively called the Green Movement, met with brutal repression from Iranian police and paramilitary operatives, called the basij, loyal to the regime. The New Yorker's John Lee Anderson breaks down the human toll:

Riot police and Basij, armed with knives and guns, were sent into the streets to attack the protesters. Between forty and eighty people were killed, Mousavi's nephew among them, and thousands were arrested.

In show trials held in August, more than a hundred detainees were paraded in court, many of them thin and pale and clearly terrified; according to Amnesty International, many detainees had been beaten, tortured, and raped by guards and interrogators, often at secret detention centers. Several "confessed" to an improbable range of political crimes, including treason.

The Iranian government itself does not treat minorities particularly well. Take Iran's Kurds, for example. About 6.5 million Kurds live in western Iran, but not in peace. A 2009 Human Rights Watch report documents widespread restrictions on Kurdish free speech (like banning books), denial of due process rights to Kurds suspected of political dissidence, and torture of Kurdish detainees. Dozens of Kurds are on death row, often convicted of political offenses.

But here's the catch: Khamenei, awful as he may be, still has a point about Ferguson. Despite the staggering hypocrisy of his tweet, he's correct that the police conduct in Ferguson is unconscionable and racist. The United States doesn't, or shouldn't, want human rights-abusing enemies to be able to point to things like this to whitewash their own abuses.

There are earlier echoes of this. During the Cold War, American presidents were worried that Jim Crow and America's brutal response to the civil rights movement were undermining America's image abroad. That wasn't the first, second, third, or twentieth reason any American leader should have cared about equal rights for their citizens. But it'd be good if the police in Ferguson, and others like them around the country, discovered a little bit of that old attention to how violent American racism looks around the world.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.