The Trump administration on Sunday blasted the Iranian government as a kleptocracy that has amassed wealth at the cost of its people, the latest in a series of jabs at Iran’s leadership following the United States’ withdrawal from the nuclear deal.
In a speech titled “Supporting Iranian Voices,” Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo told members of the Iranian American community that the leadership in Tehran “resembles the Mafia more than a government.” The event, held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, marked a rare outreach by the Trump administration to the Iranian diaspora — part of a nascent campaign by the U.S. government to discredit and undermine support for Iran’s leaders.
Addressing a full room, Pompeo called Iran’s leading clerics "hypocritical holy men" and blasted Iran’s government as “not normal.”
He pointed to the Iranian government’s human rights abuses as proof of his assertions but said the U.S. is open to speaking with leaders there if Tehran changes its policies.
“The Trump administration dreams the same dreams for the people of Iran as you do,” Pompeo said to applause.
Earlier Sunday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged President Trump to "make peace" with Iran, according to a report from the semiofficial Iranian Students News Agency.
“America should know that peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars,” Rouhani said.
Trump returned fire Sunday night on Twitter after Pompeo’s speech.
“NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE,” Trump tweeted. “WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!”
The crowd at the Simi Valley event was mixed, including young people who left Iran a few years ago and members of an older generation who fled after the revolution.
Mariam Memarsadeghi said that though she voted for Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in previous presidential elections, she supports the Trump administration's policies because she believes they are applying the type of pressure needed to force the Iranian regime to change.
“It’s a 180[-degree] contrast from Obama,” she said.
Iranian Americans who oppose Trump’s policies said they wondered how the administration could express its support for Iran’s citizens while imposing harsh sanctions and barring them from entering the United States.
Jamal Abdi, vice president for policy at the National Iranian American Council, accused Pompeo of promoting Iran’s hard-line conservatives while pushing policies that he said would cement economic hardship.
“The Trump administration can’t support the Iranian people’s aspirations for freedom and prosperity by impoverishing them with sanctions and fomenting unrest, and can’t show solidarity when it bars the Iranian people from securing visas to pursue their dreams,” Abdi said in a statement.
Iranians face worsening inflation and a decline of their currency, which economic analysts say could make imports scarcer, and medicine in particular more difficult to acquire.
Pompeo has described Iran in combative terms in the past, vowing to "crush" its proxy forces across the Middle East. He has repeatedly called the country the world's largest state sponsor of terrorism, arguing it antagonizes neighbors, represses its own people and imperils peace worldwide.
In May, two weeks after it withdrew from the nuclear accord, the Trump administration called for a new global coalition to force the Islamic Republic to capitulate to a dozen political and military demands.
The list would sharply curtail Iran's ballistic missile program and wider behavior in the region, and require a radical change in policy — if not leadership — in Tehran. Pompeo said Iran must meet those demands before Trump would agree to a new deal.
Ahmad Ahmadian, a student activist and Green Movement supporter, left Iran in 2011 after he was kicked out of the University of Tehran for protesting against government policies.
Like many Iranian Americans who attended the Sunday evening event, Ahmadian made an appearance because he was curious about what Pompeo would say.
“I’ve been skeptical about Americans foreign policy toward Iran. I don’t believe the nuclear deal improved human rights in Iran,” said Ahmadian, 28. “We’ve tried to create change in Iran through reform for the past 20 years, and it hasn’t had a positive outcome.”
Ahmadian, who said he supports sanctions against Iran, said he knew the policy could make life harder for his family there. But it’s a trade-off he’s willing to take.
“Sanctions are a better alternative than war,” he said.
Tanaz Haji, 34, left the talk feeling that Pompeo had the best interest of Iranians at heart.
“Yes, the travel ban is difficult. My mom can’t visit me,” she said, adding that the Trump administration hasn't provided a good reason for the policy. “But they want to do something for the people.”