The protests currently taking place in Iran are not unlike mass movements around the world—many of which have been subject to violent government crackdowns. This violence has largely backfired: In their attempts to quash these protests, the authorities have paradoxically mobilized more people to join them, making the protesters’ cause—and their demands—impossible to ignore. The violent response has also invited the sympathy and support of foreign governments. In the United States and Britain, for example, lawmakers have expressed solidarity with protesters in Hong Kong, where demonstrations against a narrowly focused extradition bill have evolved into a months-long prodemocracy movement.
Read: When cracking down on protests backfires
Though such foreign overtures have a way of propelling these movements, they can also be used to undermine them. In response to the United States’ unanimous passage of a bill supporting Hong Kong’s prodemocracy activists, Beijing harangued Washington for intervening in its internal affairs—an accusation fitting with China’s overall effort to portray the unrest in Hong Kong as a product of “Western interference.” The country has charged Britain with doing the same.
Efforts to undermine protest movements by framing them within a narrative of foreign or oppositional interference are part of a familiar autocratic playbook. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi dismissed ongoing protests against the country's new citizenship bill as being propagated by his political opponents, whom he blames for “spreading violence and creating an environment of fear.” Anti-Putin demonstrations in Russia ahead of local elections in Moscow last year were similarly attributed to “foreign meddling.”
In some countries, protesters have come to expect this sort of delegitimization—and have even taken steps to avert it. In the recent anti-government protests in Iraq, for example, demonstrators intentionally framed their movement as nonsectarian in an effort to avoid delegitimization by the state. “There are particular reasons why the Sunnis in Iraq are not out on the streets in large numbers,” Lina Khatib, the head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the London-based think tank Chatham House, told me in October. Iraq is a Shiite-majority country, and Khatib noted that the distinct lack of Sunni protesters had to do in part with the fear that mass mobilization in Sunni areas would lead to “people accusing these Sunnis of rising up against the government because they are pro-ISIS,” and make the protests easier for government forces to stamp out.
Read: The nationalist movements against sectarian politics
Trump’s apparent endorsement of the protesters in Iran puts them in a similar bind. While his pledge to stand by them raises the international profile of their cause (certainly compared to last month’s anti-government demonstrations), it comes with the price of being tied to Trump himself: a figure the Iranian government can easily point to as a hostile, and therefore delegitimizing, force. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has already attributed last year’s protests about rising fuel costs to “subversive elements” backed by the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia. The intensification of hostilities following the U.S. killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani this year is likely to strengthen such arguments.