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Iranian Photojournalist Laments Trump's Use Of Iconic Photo To Promote Iran Policies

An Iranian woman raises her fist amid the smoke of tear gas at the University of Tehran during a protest driven by anger over economic problems in December 2017.

The photojournalist behind an award-winning image of an Iranian protester in a haze of tear gas has spoken out against U.S. President Donald Trump's use of her photo to denounce Iran's leadership in connection with the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution.

Iranian Yalda Moayeri said she hoped her photo "would be a symbol of freedom everywhere in the world" and accused the U.S. leader of "us[ing] it without my permission in a tweet in Persian even," calling it "a great shame for me and causes me deep sorrow."

She complained via Instagram on February 12 that "because of Trump's policies, I, my family and my friends are forced to live under sanctions that are devastating our lives."

Moayeri also said she had kept her authorship of the photo secret for six months out of fear that "being known as the photographer I [sic] might get me into trouble," seemingly highlighting the fear and lack of freedoms that U.S. and other Western governments argue are central to some of their harshest criticisms of Tehran.

The Trump administration last year announced it was withdrawing from a 2015 nuclear deal that had eased U.S. and other international sanctions in exchange for curbs on Iran's disputed nuclear program, saying continuation would have left "the world's leading state sponsor of terror...on the cusp of acquiring the world's most dangerous weapons." It has since imposed "on the Iranian regime" what Trump described as "the highest level of economic sanctions."

Experts say the moves have taken a heavy toll on Iran's currency and its economy, which was already saddled with high unemployment, entrenched corruption, and opaque levers of control.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani last year suggested Washington was waging "psychological and economic and eventually political warfare to break our nation."

Moayeri's photograph shows an unidentified woman near Tehran University raising a defiant fist with one hand while trying to protect herself from tear gas with the other amid street protests that rattled Iran's clerically dominated leadership in late 2017 and early 2018.

Yalda Moayeri poses with her photograph.
Yalda Moayeri poses with her photograph.

Security forces came out in force, communications were restricted, and thousands of Iranians were detained in the effort to quell the economic and political unrest, which had spread to dozens of cities. Protest chants included condemnation of the leadership and the country's highest authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The photo was widely shared on social media and in the Western press at the time.

In conjunction with the anniversary this month of Iran's 1979 revolution, Trump used Moayeri's image in tweets on February 11 -- in English and in Persian -- with text accusing the Iranian leadership of "40 years of corruption. 40 years of repression. 40 years of terror. The regime in Iran has produced only #40YearsofFailure. The long-suffering Iranian people deserve a much brighter future."

Moayeri, 37, said seeing the picture in the tweets "and in a press interview by [U.S. Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and any senior U.S. politician, is very embarrassing."

"This photo is from the people in Iran and for the people in Iran, and it shouldn't be misused by anyone else," she added.

Moayeri also criticized the year-old U.S. travel ban that prevents Iranians -- and nationals from six other countries -- from entering the United States, where she said her father lives.

U.S. officials including Pompeo have defended the reimposition of sanctions on Iran, saying the measures are designed to alter Tehran's behavior.

The Trump administration's tough line has been interpreted by some as an effort at regime change despite denials by U.S. officials.

Moayeri eventually won the main prize of the annual Iranian Photojournalist Association for the image, once her identity was known.

In an interview with The New York Times, she said that she sold her image to Iran-based photographers for The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse.

She said that she still possessed the rights to the photo.

Iran does not recognize international copyright laws.

But many interpretations of copyright law also make certain allowances for so-called transformative uses of works outside the exclusive rightsholder.

The U.S. State Department did not initially respond to an RFE/RL request for comment on Moayeri's statements.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.