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Ten minutes into his speech, he was heckled by a protester, who shouted about the Trump administration "kidnapping children." The protester continued to shout, but she was drowned out by audience members shouting her down, and chants of "USA! USA!"

The chaotic scene lasted for 30 seconds or so, with Pompeo eventually quipping, "If there were only so much freedom of expression in Iran," to cheers and applause.

I can't get the quip made by Pompeo in this context. If there were only so much freedom of expression in Iran seems to have nothing to do with this context. Can somebody help me to understand it?

Here is the full source.

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The protester is complaining about the lack of freedom in the USA. Pompeo points out that compared to some other countries (eg Iran) one would not be able to complain.

The use of "if only..." is used to express a wish or desire:

If only I had $10000... (I wish I had $10000 but I don't)

It is more common to keep "only" next to "if", but as is common with adverbs, they can be moved to different positions in the sentence without changeing the meaning.

If I only had $10000... (could be the same meaning, but possibly ambiguous)
If I had only $10000 ... (different meaning, this would be used as "If I had only $10000 I would not be able to buy that car". It doesn't express a desire)

He is saying:

If there were such freedom of expression in Iran, we wouldn't have a problem with Iran. This guy complains about the USA, but he doesn't realise how lucky he is to live in a country where he is allowed to complain.

  • The phrase "if only" has been separated in the original sentence, so I haven't sorted it out. Is it normal to separate it like that? – dan Jul 23 '18 at 9:01
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    Please refrain from commenting about freedom of speech here. – James K Jul 23 '18 at 9:32
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    @dan: What Pompeo said is technically different from "if only" (adjoined), but it is clear from context that he intended to communicate the "if only" (adjoined) meaning. – Flater Jul 23 '18 at 12:07
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    @dan The more typical ordering would be "If only there were..." rather than "If there were only..." Pompeo's ordering choice is extra confusing because it clashes with the phrase "only so much", which isn't quite as set as "if only" but is common enough that the sentence took multiple attempts in order to find a viable meaning. – Kamil Drakari Jul 23 '18 at 13:31
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The key words are "if only",

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Used to express a wish, especially regretfully. ‘if only I had listened to you’

This sentence means he hopes Iran has so much of freedom ... and implied that

there weren't so much freedom of expression in Iran.

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The protester who heckled Pompeo was exercising her right to freedom of expression. Later she was subdued by other audience members just by chanting "USA!".

This shows that although she has the right to freedom of expression, but in this case it is very limited because no one was listening to her and soon shouted her down.

In Iran people don't have this luxury. They get arrested and, sometimes, killed for doing something like this.

So, when he says, "If there were only so much freedom of expression in Iran," he means that in Iran people don't have even this limited luxury of freedom of expression. They don't get shouted down, they get arrested and killed.

  • Freedom of expression is not a right/guarantee that you'll be heard/listened to or agreed-with. Just FYI. The former was not "very limited", or even limited at all. – Lightness Races with Monica Jul 23 '18 at 15:43

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