World News

Swell of Unrest Poses Dilemma Over Sanctions

Posted January 2, 2018 9:01 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has given full-throated support to the anti-government protesters in Iran. But the rising tide of unrest there complicates an already vexing decision for him: whether he should rip up the nuclear deal struck by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Starting in two weeks, Trump faces a series of deadlines on whether the United States should reimpose sanctions on Iran that were lifted as a result of the agreement. Trump has already disavowed the deal, and he warned Congress and European allies last October that if they did not improve its terms, “the agreement will be terminated.”

With little progress on that front, and signs of a crackdown in Iran, analysts worry that Trump’s patience will run out. But they fear that if he acts now, it would shift the blame from the Iranian government, which is besieged by the protests and charges of corruption, to the U.S., which would be seen as forsaking an agreement with which Iran is complying.

The White House deflected questions Tuesday about how the protests would affect Trump’s calculus. “He’s going to keep all of his options on the table,” the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said. Trump’s ultimate goal, she added, was for the Iranian people to have “basic human rights” and for Iran to stop backing terrorism.

For Trump, the first major eruption of political unrest in Iran since 2009 carries opportunities as well as risks. Sanders emphasized the White House’s unyielding support for the demonstrators, which she contrasted to the more reticent approach taken by Obama in 2009 during protests that became known as the Green Movement.

The State Department on Tuesday urged Iran not to restrict access to social media services like Instagram and messaging platforms like Telegram, which the protesters are using to spread word about anti-government gatherings. It encouraged Iranians to use virtual private networks to sidestep the government’s efforts to block them.

Trump himself sought to link the grievances of the Iranian demonstrators to his predecessor’s policies, saying that the corruption of Iran’s leadership has been fueled by the benefits of the nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration.

“The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime,” he said in an early morning tweet. “All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their ‘pockets,'” he added, apparently referring to the Iranian funds that were freed up when Iran agreed to constraints on its nuclear program.

But Trump’s invocation of Obama and the nuclear deal muddies his message, analysts said, by turning the spotlight away from the Iranian government’s economic failures — which have given rise to this powerful if inchoate protest movement — to the lingering debate in Washington over the nuclear agreement.

Trump never fully resolved that debate himself. In October, he refused to certify the deal, but he left it to Congress to legislate changes to it. Lawmakers have made little progress and European leaders have refused to revisit it. Between Jan. 11 and Jan. 17, Trump faces fresh deadlines on whether to recertify the deal and to continue to waive sanctions.

“He was going to be put on the spot, anyway, explaining why he was keeping the deal alive without these improvements,” said Philip H. Gordon, a senior National Security Council official in the Obama administration. “If the Iranians are killing people in the streets when it comes time for Trump to extend the sanctions waivers, it is hard to see him doing it.”

Yet killing the deal, Gordon said, could enable the Iranian government to galvanize domestic support against the U.S. rather than face questions about why it has not been able to improve Iran’s economy. “Right now, they cannot blame us or the international sanctions,” he said. “This could allow them to make the U.S. the enemy.”

Even critics of the deal said they worried that the protests would tempt Trump to abandon it rather than try to improve it.

“If there is a bipartisan bill that is ready for congressional action, that would go a long way toward persuading the president to issue the waivers,” said Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “If there’s not, what’s happening in Iran will give the president all the more reason to say, ‘I’ve had it with this deal.'” On Capitol Hill, however, many lawmakers expect Trump will reluctantly agree to waive sanctions, leaving the deal in place. In theory, that would allow the Senate additional time to try to meet Trump’s request that the legislature make alterations to the agreement.

Still, it remained unclear on Tuesday whether Republicans and Democrats would be able to agree on a path to do so, with Democrats convinced that the kind of changes Trump has asked for would prompt either Iran or America’s European allies to withdraw.

Despite their fears about the fate of the deal, some Obama officials endorsed Trump’s vocal support for the protesters, favorably comparing it to Obama’s muted response when thousands of Iranians took to the streets in June 2009 after a rigged presidential election. Obama withheld criticism, in part, because dissidents warned them that Tehran would use that endorsement to discredit the movement.

With hindsight, some say, that was a mistake because the protesters deserved the United States’ public backing, and the Iranian government would have labeled them foreign stooges either way. Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state, has described it as one of her greatest regrets from that period.

“For a lot of us who were in the administration, there is some regret,” said Daniel B. Shapiro, a former senior National Security Council official and ambassador to Israel. “At that moment, it would have been desirable to be more outspoken on behalf of the rights of the Iranian people.” “It’s inspiring to see Iranian citizens going into the streets to protest a brutal and corrupt regime,” Shapiro said of the current uprising, though he cautioned that “there’s a lot we don’t know,” given the lack of leadership and traditional roots of these protests.

Shapiro, now a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said the U.S. should impose targeted sanctions on Iranian officials who order a violent crackdown on the protests. He said the administration should also redouble its efforts to push back on Iran’s military adventurism in the region.

Military commanders and Pentagon officials say they are drafting plans to counter what they call Iran’s “destabilizing” activities, like supporting Hezbollah and other militant proxy groups, supplying missile technology to Houthi rebels in Yemen, and carrying out cyberoperations.

“We’re not trying to go to war with Iran, but we are trying to hold them accountable for some of the things they’re doing, and we’re trying to roll some of that back,” Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the head of the Pentagon’s Central Command, said in a recent interview in Bahrain.

There is another, less likely, course that Trump could take to show solidarity with the Iranian people, analysts said: lift the travel ban on people from Iran who seek to visit the U.S.

“Iranians took the travel ban very personally because they were the largest group most directly affected,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert who is the deputy director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.