World News

Trump Reiterates Support for Iranian Protesters, but Also Criticizes Obama

Posted January 2, 2018 4:57 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump redoubled his support on Tuesday for anti-government protesters in Iran, but trained some of his fire on former President Barack Obama, whom Trump accused of fueling the corruption of Iran’s leadership with the proceeds from the nuclear deal negotiated by his administration.

Trump’s dual critiques, delivered in an early-morning post on Twitter, captured the dilemma he will face in responding to the first major eruption of political unrest in Iran since 2009.

Unlike Obama, who was faulted for his reticent response to the protests that became known as the Green Movement, Trump has laid down an early marker on the side of the demonstrators, repeatedly condemning the Iranian government for its repression and warning the authorities that the United States, and the world, “is watching.”

Also on Tuesday, the State Department urged Iran not to restrict access to social media services like Instagram and messaging platforms like Telegram, which the demonstrators are using to spread word about anti-government gatherings.

But Trump’s invocation of Obama and the nuclear deal could muddy his message, some analysts said, by shifting the focus 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 an agreement struck by the previous president.

“The people of Iran are finally acting against a brutal and corrupt Iranian regime,” Trump said. “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.

Trump’s linkage of the protests with the deal suggested he could feel compelled to reimpose sanctions against Iran when he faces the next deadline on the matter this month.

When Trump denounced, but did not rip up, the deal in October, he said that if Congress and European allies did not work together to improve its terms, “the agreement will be terminated.” But since then, Republicans in Congress have done little to propose new legislation, while the Europeans have insisted they will not revisit the agreement for now.

“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.”

But killing the deal now, 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 economic conditions. “Right now, they cannot blame us or the international sanctions,” he said. “This could allow them to make the U.S. the enemy.”

Gordon and other Obama officials endorsed the Trump administration’s full-throated support for the protesters in contrast 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 big 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 United States should impose targeted sanctions on Iranian officials who order a violent crackdown on the protests. 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. Votel said the United States and its regional allies need to expose Iran’s activities — such as shipping weapons to proxies — and make it more difficult for them to continue unchecked.

“Iran operates in a gray zone,” Votel said. “We have to be prepared to operate in that area, too.”

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 United States.

“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.