Trump and his senior officials have offered rhetorical support for the protesters and denounced the government in statements and on Twitter. They are also exploring such further steps as targeted sanctions and warnings to social media companies not to comply with Iranian censorship.
But Trump will have an opportunity for far more dramatic action in less than two weeks, when he must decide by law whether to continue waiving economic sanctions against Iran that were lifted by the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The sanctions waivers must be renewed every 120 days.
Trump could be further motivated to move boldly given bipartisan complaints that President Barack Obama failed to act forcefully in response to the last round of major Iranian protests, in 2009, sources familiar with administration deliberations said.
Although Trump has repeatedly threatened to withdraw unilaterally from the nuclear deal, his senior national security team has persuaded him that the diplomatic costs outweigh the benefits of keeping a campaign promise and undoing one of Obama’s proudest achievements. But some people familiar with administration deliberations say that the moment of vulnerability for Iran’s nearly 40-year-old fundamentalist regime may move him to grander action.
“You use this as a wedge to try to renegotiate the deal” — Andrew Bowen
“He’s not going to want to waive sanctions and keep money flowing to dictators when there are people protesting in the streets,” said Richard Goldberg, a former Senate Republican aide who helped design Iran sanctions and is now a senior adviser at the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Another Middle East analyst with ties to the Trump administration agreed.
“I think there’s a calculus that you take advantage of this moment and you don’t waive the sanctions, and put further pressure on a regime which is already facing a lot of economic problems,” said Andrew Bowen, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “You use this as a wedge to try to renegotiate the deal.”
Many other Middle East experts and former U.S. officials dispute that rationale, however, warning that pulling the plug on the nuclear deal would throw Iran’s embattled Islamist leaders a lifeline. The agreement retains strong support from the five other nations that negotiated it with Tehran — China, Russia, Great Britain, France and Germany.
“I would not walk away” from the nuclear deal, said Dennis Ross, a Middle East adviser to three presidents of both parties. “It basically diverts attention back onto us. We have an interest in keeping the spotlight on what the Iranians are doing, not shifting it to a step that we took.”
As a candidate, Trump repeatedly denounced the nuclear deal and vowed to shred it once in office.
A senior administration official told POLITICO that waiving the sanctions again, amid the popular upheaval in Iran’s streets, “sends a horrible message,” but that Trump would also be presented with the option of preserving the deal. Even if Trump decides to continue providing Tehran with sanctions relief, the official said, the protests offer the U.S. “additional pressure over the Europeans” to modify the terms of the nuclear agreement.
Iran insists it will not renegotiate the nuclear deal. The July 2015 agreement slowed Iran’s steady march toward nuclear weapons capability, scaling back and limiting its atomic program in return for an end to punishing U.S. and European economic sanctions.
Obama called Washington’s furious argument over the deal “the most consequential foreign policy debate that our country has had since the invasion of Iraq,” and warned that the alternatives were a nuclear-armed Iran or war.
As a candidate, Trump repeatedly denounced the nuclear deal and vowed to shred it once in office. He has been dissuaded by top officials, including National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. None are enthusiastic defenders of the agreement, but all say the costs of withdrawing now — including international isolation and the risk of a second nuclear emergency even as Trump confronts North Korea — are not worth the uncertain benefits.
European leaders have also urged Trump to preserve the deal, arguing that restored U.S. sanctions would empower regime hard-liners who say the U.S. cannot be trusted and would lead Iran to restart its nuclear program.
Confronted with an October 15 legal deadline to certify whether Iran had complied with the deal, Trump declined to do so — despite the findings of international inspectors who say Iran has complied with its obligations, which include dismantling centrifuges and limiting uranium enrichment.
Trump’s refusal to certify Iran’s compliance was mainly symbolic. But he warned that unless Congress and European countries took unspecified steps to crack down on Tehran, “the agreement will be terminated.”
No such action has followed, although Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, has been talking with his Democratic counterpart, Ben Cardin of Maryland, about legislation that might satisfy Trump that the deal has been strengthened while still winning 60 votes for Senate passage. That would require coming up with language that would not violate the nuclear deal’s terms while providing Trump with political cover to preserve the agreement.
Senate aides familiar with the negotiations, however, said it was unlikely that the upper chamber would produce that sort of legislation by the time the president has to decide — on January 11 and over the following week — whether to certify the deal and, more important, to waive the sanctions the agreement lifted.
Seizing on the drama of the protests, Republican hawks are now pushing for a tougher bill. Corker is working to win over one of those hawks, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a confidant of McMaster and an influential foreign policy adviser to the administration. Two sources familiar with administration thinking say it’s unlikely the president would support a bill that Cotton himself has not signed on to.
Cotton is pushing for legislation that targets short-range missiles, which have become a matter of contention in the negotiations. Because they are not nuclear missiles, they fall outside the purview of the nuclear agreement, yet they pose a real threat to Iran’s neighbors in the region.
“I suspect that this is giving him the pretext to do what he was planning to do anyway” — Trita Parsi
“That is outside the nuclear deal, and that gives the Democrats and the Europeans heartburn,” a senior administration official said.
Congress could also pursue legislation in response to the protests, unrelated to the nuclear agreement. Potential bills include enforcing provisions of existing laws against Tehran, including the Global Magnitsky Act, a 2016 law that expanded an initial statute targeting human rights abusers in Russia to violators worldwide.
Another option would be for the Senate to pass transparency legislation cleared by the House in December that would make public the financial assets of top Iranian officials.
Sources with ties to the administration said the protests may have raised the bar for what new action against Iran will satisfy Trump when it comes to the nuclear deal.
“The protests come at a time when the politics were really against Trump and the administration internationally. Now you have a situation where Iranians are pouring into the streets. [The protests] are a reminder of the type of regime you’ve been dealing with,” said Goldberg, the former Senate Republican aide. “I think the threshold” for Congressional action “goes up much, much more.”
Some supporters of the nuclear deal unhappily agree.
“I suspect that this is giving him the pretext to do what he was planning to do anyway,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council. “It is definitely going to make him more comfortable, but the U.S. will still be isolated and other countries will be upset.”
Parsi added that negating the nuclear deal would also do a favor to Iranian hard-liners, who he said would blame President Hassan Rouhani of Iran for brokering a failed bargain with the U.S.
Obama officials viewed Rouhani and Javad Zarif, his foreign minister and Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator, as reformers willing to thaw decades of U.S.-Iranian hostility. Critics say that was never true, and that Rouhani’s crackdown on the protesters reveals his lack of genuine support for greater political freedom.
At least 20 people have been killed over nearly a week of protests in several cities around the country, with 450 arrested in Tehran alone, according to the Associated Press.
Ross, who served as a top national security aide in the Obama White House during Iran’s so-called Green Revolution in 2009, said Obama had not responded forcefully enough at the time, and applauded the Trump administration’s repeated statements drawing attention to the protests and their violent repression.
Trump officials are trying to back the protests without playing into Iranian propaganda that accuses the U.S. of fomenting “regime change” inside the country. In a Tuesday news conference, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, quoted anti-government chants from some of the demonstrations, noting: “Those are not my words. Those are not the words of the United States. Those are the words of the brave people of Iran.”
But Ross, who supports non-nuclear sanctions against Tehran, cautioned that top Iranian officials — including the nation’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a militant Shiite cleric — would happily exploit a decision by Trump to walk away from the nuclear deal.
“Reimposing all the nuclear sanctions allows the regime to say they are standing up to pressure from the outside,” Ross said. “They want to turn this into a nationalist issue. We want to raise the costs of a crackdown. Don’t give them a reason to focus on us.”
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.