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Why Iran’s supreme leader just thanked Trump for his Muslim ban

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei unleashed a counterintuitive tweet storm Tuesday.

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President Donald Trump has wasted little time going after Iran. He included the country in his high-profile and immensely polarizing travel ban on seven Muslim-majority nations. He warned that his administration was putting Tehran “on notice” for having conducted a medium-range ballistic missile test. And on Friday, the US made good on that threat by expanding sanctions against Iran, both to hurt Tehran’s missile program and strike at its support of militant proxy forces in the region.

On Tuesday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had a rather counterintuitive response: gratitude.

Khamenei said that he considers the opening weeks of Trump’s administration to be a revelation of America’s true character, and was grateful for how it made plain impulses that have typically laid beneath the surface of American policy.

Here’s his Tuesday morning tweetstorm on the issue, drawn from a speech at a gathering of Iran's air force commanders:

Khamenei’s mention of a child in handcuffs is a reference to the 5-year-old boy, a US citizen with an Iranian mother, who was reportedly detained at Washington Dulles International Airport for hours by himself before being united with his mother. The Trump administration defended the act as necessary for security, with White House press secretary Sean Spicer saying, “To assume that just because of someone’s age or gender or whatever that they don’t pose a threat would be misguided and wrong.”

Khamenei’s rhetoric is a prime example of how the US’s political adversaries in the Middle East can easily use Trump’s Islamophobic rhetoric and policies as a tool for recruiting and mobilizing against him. And indeed, Khamenei did just that on Tuesday:

There’s an ongoing debate about whether Trump’s attitude toward Muslims and other minorities in the US is an aberration from the trajectory of mainstream American political life or in fact a distillation of values that have existed as subtexts throughout its history. There’s no neat and simple answer to that question, but it’s clear US adversaries like Khamenei will lean toward the less charitable interpretation, and hammer home the idea that Trump is as American as apple pie.