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The Associated Press / Anti-government protesters carry an Iraqi flag and chant anti-Iran and anti-U.S. slogans during ongoing protests in Iraq and Iran last week.

Many Iranians saw their country's leadership for what it is last week. And although it took a horribly tragic accident to expose it, positive developments could result.

Protests following the crash of a Ukrainian jet also could give the United States a reason to continue to ratchet down tensions with the Middle East country and tighten screws on it at the same time.

Iran, the world's leading terror sponsor, admitted over the weekend it shot down the jetliner, killing all 176 people aboard. Senior officials in the country had denied the possibility for three days, ignoring growing allegations by Western powers that a missile strike likely took out the plane.

The strike took place as the Middle East country braced for a retaliatory response from the U.S. following its attack on two U.S. military bases in Iraq that didn't kill or hurt anyone.

U.S. President Donald Trump, with unprecedented restraint, did not have the U.S. answer the ballistic missile base attacks.

His restraint made Iran look all the worse to its citizens after the Ukrainian airline accident because many of the passengers were Iranians or Iranian Canadians — and young. The result has been anti-government protests by the Iranian people, furious not only at the deaths but at the initial denials of responsibility.

Trump, after Iran's strikes on the military bases in Iraq, ordered additional sanctions on the Middle Eastern country. Previous sanctions — in an effort to get the country to end or limit its nuclear program — have failed to bring it to the negotiating table.

The U.S. in 2018 withdrew from a one-sided, Obama-era executive agreement with the country that limited its nuclear production but allowed it to continue exporting terror and gave it millions of dollars to do so.

The sanctions have crippled Iran's economy and slowed its oil revenues. We believe continued sanctions and support for the country's protesters are the best way to convince Iran's leaders to rethink their nuclear ambitions.

Dare we even think they might lead to another Iranian, or Islamic, Revolution, the first of which toppled the pro-Western leaders in 1979 and sank the country into one led by terrorist religious zealots? Under its fundamental law constitution, the country today has severe restrictions on freedom of speech, press, religion and gender equality.

Though the country's state-run media did not cover the recent protests, online videos showed protesters shouting anti-government slogans as they moved about public places in various Iranian cities. Because of the country's lack of freedom of speech, many of them had to keep their heads covered for fear of reprisals by Iranian police or military members.

Tehran police acknowledged its officers used tear gas to quell some of the protesters but denied using live rounds, though CNBC video showed a woman with what appeared to be a gunshot wound.

Trump, never letting an international incident go by without weighing in on Twitter, sent a message supporting the protesters in Farsi: "To the brave and suffering Iranian people: I have stood with you since the beginning of my presidency and my government will continue to stand with you. We are following your protests closely. Your courage is inspiring."

It became the most-liked Twitter message ever in the Persian language with more than 200,000 "likes." It had the tone of a message a United States president should send, and the president should continue backing Iranian people who oppose the oppressive regime.

Unfortunately, as only Trump can, he followed a moment of professionalism with one of unprofessionalism. On Monday, he retweeted a photoshopped image of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in Muslim headwear with the backdrop of an Iranian flag.

No matter what he may think of the Democratic leaders' lack of support of his recent strike on Iranian Revolutionary Guard leader Gen. Qassem Soleimani, trafficking in the portrayal of them in Muslim garb is the height of fake news he claims to detest. It was also childish.

Trump would have been well within his rights, though, to berate the loyal opposition for not backing the protesters in Iran, for not supporting him in taking out the Iranian strongman or for blaming him for the Iranian strike on the Ukrainian plane.

Indeed, Democrats look particularly weak when they can least afford it, just ahead of their final debate before the first presidential preference primary in Iowa in early February and after they have held unpopular impeachment articles against Trump in the House and not delivered them to the Senate.

At this point, Trump and the protesters in Iran deserve a united front, one that supports regime change from the inside and keeps maximum pressure on its government without escalating tensions toward more violence or war.

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