Critics or Traitors? Responses to Iranian Exiles’ Letter to Trump

Raz Zimmt discusses Iranians’ responses to a letter in which Iranian exiles urge US President Trump to adopt an aggressive policy towards Iran.

"Most Farsi-language users of Twitter demonstrated this evening that although they oppose the Islamic regime, they are not traitors who would betray their homeland"
"Most Farsi-language users of Twitter demonstrated this evening that although they oppose the Islamic regime, they are not traitors who would betray their homeland," from Twitter. 


In late December, exiled Iranian activists produced uproar within Iran by calling for US President Donald Trump to adopt an aggressive policy towards Iran. Shortly after their letter was published, social networking sites (SNS) were flooded with thousands of responses from Iranian users, including both the current regime's supporters and critics. These users took issue with the letter, and saw their fellow Iranians as having crossed a red line by cooperating with a foreign power to pressure Iran. To them, this was not legitimate criticism of the regime, but rather contemptible assistance to Iran’s adversaries.

In late December 2016, 30 Iranian exiles sent a letter to Trump in which they called for him to cancel the nuclear treaty with Iran, and expand sanctions against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), financial institutions controlled by the Supreme Leader, and top Iranian officials involved in human rights violations. Their declared purpose was to intensify pressure on the regime in Tehran and work towards its removal.[1] The letter was signed by journalists, human rights activists, and former political prisoners. These included Ahmad Batebi, a leader of the student demonstrations in 1999 who became a symbol of the protest after being photographed in a bloodstained shirt, and Arash Sobhani, a soloist for the successful Iranian rock band Kiosk and host of the satirical television program OnTen, broadcast on Voice of America in Farsi.

Immediately following publication of the letter, conservative right Iranian media outlets supportive of the regime attacked the letter's signatories and accused them of treason. The conservative newspaper Sobhe-No printed pictures of the signatories on its front page next to a picture of Trump under the headline, “30 who sold out their homeland” (see picture).[2] An opinion piece published by Fars News Agency wrote that those who complained that the regime had spilled their blood were now openly encouraging President Trump to suck the blood of their countrymen.[3]

Criticism of the signatories quickly expanded beyond the conservative right to include political activists and media outlets identified with the reformist camp. Abdolvahed Mousavi Lari, Minister of the Interior under reformist former President Mohammad Khatami, told an interviewer for the Shargh newspaper that the letter served the interests of Iran's hardliners. He emphasized the reformists’ support for the nuclear agreement, and asserted that there is no difference between the signatories and the radical opponents of the government who call for the agreement's revocation. Activist Hamid-Reza Jalaei-Pour declared that despite being a reformist, he believes that democracy is the way to save Iran. If Iran or the lives and security of its citizens were endangered, he would willingly go to war under the leadership of the Supreme Leader.[4]

Widespread public discourse simultaneously emerged on SNS, which were flooded with thousands of messages using the hashtag #Letter to Trump (#نامه_به_ترامپ).[5] A few users, mostly Iranian exiles, expressed support for the letter claiming that external pressure on Iran is the only way to achieve the desired political change. “When the boots of oppression and tyranny stomp on the necks of citizens, questioning the assistance of foreign powers is not only logical and ethical but sometimes even necessary,” tweeted one user.[6]

Compared to the limited support for the letter writers, opposition on SNS was rampant. Among those responding, some used strong language to attack the signatories. These users claimed that the signatories do not represent the citizens of Iran, and are nothing more than “Traitors disguised as intellectuals and supporters of freedom, who are willing to sell their country's people for a pot of gold.”[7] Others claimed that it is only possible to change the Iranian regime from within, and not through American or foreign intervention. “There is a great difference between a critic of the regime who demands reforms and an opponent of the regime who is willing to contact even an enemy in order to bring it down,” tweeted one user.[8] Several noted that the letter was sent on the anniversary of Operation Karbala-4, initiated by Iran in late December 1986 during the war against Iraq. In this operation, which quickly ended in a resounding defeat for Iran, Iranian soldiers discovered that the Iraqi soldiers they were fighting had been aided by Iranian opposition Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK). The treachery of the letter’s signatories was compared to that of MEK.[9]

Many users highlighted the fact that opposition to the letter had emerged beyond the boundary of the regime's supporters. “Most Farsi-language users of Twitter demonstrated this evening that although they oppose the Islamic regime, they are not traitors who would betray their homeland,” read one tweet.[10] Iranian exiles' call to intensify sanctions against Iran aroused particular opposition amongst Iran's residents, who suffer the impact of the sanctions that weaken their economic situation. They claimed that sanctions against Iran were doing serious harm to its citizens, and calling for their intensification is a betrayal. Quantitative evidence of this trend was identified by an Iranian Internet researcher, who found that a day after the letter was published, more than 74% of the tweets bearing the hashtag #Letter to Trump were sent from within Iran.[11] Signatories emphasized that their intention was to encourage sanctions focused solely on IRGC and the regime, not widespread sanctions that would harm ordinary citizens.

The harsh criticism from many Iranian SNS users reveals the intensity of Iranian citizens’ fear for the fate of the nuclear agreement in the Trump era. From the perspective of the Iranian public, were the new American administration to increase pressure on Iran and revoke the nuclear agreement, Iran's economic crisis would worsen, shattering the hope for economic improvement that followed the signing of the accord. This perspective is amplified by broader Iranian opposition to the policy of sanctions, which is seen as an illegitimate form of pressure used by the West to diminish Iranian sovereignty. In response to the letter, outcry expressed by the Iranian public, including strong critics of the regime, reflects distaste for foreign attempts to apply external pressure on the country. To Iranians, the letter represents a type of action that is largely considered illegitimate, undermining national unity and honor. Those who support such actions are likely to find themselves rejected as collaborators and traitors.