"No lives matter"—Tehran’s take on the American way after George Floyd

Racist police killings and protests in the US are allowing Iran to trash the US brand by all sorts of means—including 90s rap

June 16, 2020
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Four days after US policeman Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd in broad daylight, former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reached for a 2Pac lyric to contextualise events. “Pull the trigger, kill a N—, he's a hero,” he tweeted, quoting the rapper’s 1992 track “Changes” and prompting a predictable mix of anger, outrage, manufactured outrage and amusement.

Ahmadinejad, a long-time 2Pac fan and ally of the New Black Panther Party, is peculiar to senior Iranian politicians in that he continues to cast himself as a permanent revolutionary. Most of Iran’s elite, familiar with the often-grubby trade-offs involved in running an economically besieged post-revolutionary nation state, limit their rhetoric on borderless revolution of the world’s oppressed for strategic purposes only. Ahmadinejad, however, always casts himself as the true believer in the Islamic Republic's original potential to emancipate the world’s oppressed.

Ayatollah Khomeini founded Iran’s managed democracy by reinventing a Shia Islam’s traditional conception of clerical guardianship of dispossessed Muslims into a state-building project, into which he co-opted internationalist “third world” liberation movements, Islamist leftism, capitalism and Iranian nationalism. When these strands have contradicted one another, Iranian elites emphasise the ideology most expedient to the political demands of the moment.

The murder of George Floyd and the resulting protests have rallied Iran’s elite around the internationalism remembered from the early years of the revolution and whose torch Ahmadinejad continues to carry, albeit now out of office and power.

“Putting a foot on a black man's neck and pressuring him to die is not something that has just been created, it is American nature,” President Rohani said in a televised speech on Thursday. “It is something that is done with many countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and so on.”

Iran’s police and security forces have acted brutally against citizens, most notably during the 2009 protests that followed the disputed re-election of Ahmadinejad. The killing of Neda Agha-Soltan, a protestor, was jumped on by multiple US politicians, wishing to delegitimise the government at a particularly vulnerable moment. Now it is Tehran’s turn.

Iran has set up vigils across major cities in solidarity with George Floyd. On 3rd June, a small student protest took place outside the Swiss embassy, which represents the US in Iran: “My message to the American to people,” an unnamed female student told the South China Morning Post, “is to persevere in the face of this oppression and they should defend their rights... being dark skinned in all religions, especially Islam, is not a sign of low status.”

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who once issued a speech entirely on the subject of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and sets Uncle Tom’s Cabin as necessary reading for government officials, now tweets in support of Black Lives Matter.

Terhran likes to present American police brutality at home as if it were another aspect of the US’s policing of world, such as that which excludes Iran from access to international trade. Other than a two-year respite following the now-defunct Obama-era nuclear deal that Trump scuppered, the US has applied sanctions for a full decade on any individual or commercial entity transacting business with Iran. It is, in the words of the Iranian government, a “financial war” that has wiped out much of the middle class and impoverished its working class. The rulers in Iran want its population to know that the knee on their necks is American, not Iranian.

On another level, expressing solidarity with African Americans in this moment of uprising mirrors the US attempts to ferment Iran’s once quiet domestic separatist movements (Kurdish, Arab, Baloch). “We both want to separate the enemy’s people from their government,” explained an Iranian professor at The Imam Hossein university, affiliated with the powerful paramilitary Islamic Republic Guard Corps. “But while America uses terrorists against us, we build alliances with groups oppressed by the Global Arrogance [the US].”

“Iran is not involved in the recent uprising, but they show the people across the world that US claims to support human rights are false and unrealistic,” Abolfazl Amouei, a conservative MP for Tehran, told me. “Human rights for the US are a means for political intervention in independent states.”

This sentiment is commonplace among officials across Iran’s political spectrum. Mobilising sentiment against US racism may well be self-serving but it is not necessarily insincere. For many of Iran’s aging revolutionaries, George Floyd is another martyr for the cause.