“The United States of America supports the brave people of Iran who are protesting for their FREEDOM. We have under the Trump Administration, and always will!” the U.S. president tweeted Tuesday from London, where he’s attending a NATO gathering.
The debate among U.S. officials now centers on exactly how to take advantage of the moment:
How much and how fast to further maximize the pressure campaign given the potential blowback in a region mired in crises. The U.S. and Iran barely avoided military confrontations earlier this year following attacks on oil tankers and Saudi facilities that U.S. officials blamed on Iran.
The immediate crisis soon passed, but the risk of confrontation remains high as the Trump administration seeks to starve the Iranian regime of revenue and as the president beefs up the U.S. military presence in the Middle East — by some 14,000 troops since May.
“If you do double down on the economic pressure, how will the regime respond? You have to be prepared for major escalation,” said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive officer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish think tank close to the administration. He stressed that he wants the administration to exert more pressure.
A Trump administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, added: “There’s an emerging belief that these protests are not like the others. More convulsions are coming.”
Administration officials and their allies are aware that protest movements can go any number of ways, especially in the Middle East, from helping establish still-nascent democratic rule in a place like Tunisia to devolving into a vicious civil war in a place like Syria.
Aside from Iran, there are ongoing protests across Iraq and in Lebanon; the prime ministers of both those countries have resigned in a bow to demonstrators’ demands. While the Iraqi and Lebanese protesters have various grievances, some of their anger is over Iran’s influence in their countries. “Here is Lebanon, not Iran” some protesters have chanted; in Iraq, protesters have torched the Iranian consulate in the city of Najaf.
Iran has a history of mass protests, not the least of which led to its 1979 Islamic revolution and the end of its diplomatic ties with the United States. The cleric-led regime that has ruled since managed to quell protests in 2009 — known as the “Green Movement” — after a disputed election. It also clung to power despite a spate of protests across the country in late 2017 and early 2018, in which labor rights were a major issue.
Just how much these protest movements have been fueled by political demands, as opposed to purely economic grievances, is the subject of fierce debate among Iran watchers.
The latest protests were sparked in mid-November by the Iranian government’s sudden move to raise gasoline prices. The decision infuriated a population already battered by heavy U.S. sanctions imposed by Trump after he quit the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, but which also has seethed over regime corruption and mismanagement.
As the protests spread, the regime reacted violently. Its armed forces gunned down demonstrators, many of whom were unemployed or otherwise poor young men. The Islamist leadership also effectively shut down the internet for roughly a week, making it difficult for Iranians to communicate with the outside world or even with each other.
On Monday, Amnesty International put the death toll at 208; many observers suspect it is much higher. Thousands are believed to have been arrested, although the regime has been vague or dismissive of some of the reports. It has described the protesters as foreign-linked rioters.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke out relatively quickly about the protests; in a tweet sent Nov. 16, he told Iranians: “The United States is with you.” But he’s also downplayed the notion that U.S. sanctions were a driver in bringing people out to the streets, insisting Iranians are unhappy with their repressive government.
On Nov. 21, Pompeo issued an unusual request: In a Farsi-language tweet, he asked Iranians to send in photos, videos and other data that would help the U.S. expose and sanction abuses. A week ago, he said the U.S. had received “20,000 messages, videos, pictures, notes of the regime’s abuses through Telegram messaging services.”
The Trump administration official who spoke to POLITICO said the number in the days since had climbed to 36,000, with more data still coming. Now that Iran has begun restoring internet access, the number is likely to keep rising.
The official said that State Department has assigned staff to analyze the data, which he described as being tips about “people and places, both victims and perpetrators.” He declined to get more specific.
Analysts said U.S. officials from the intelligence services, the Treasury Department and other agencies also would likely play a role in sifting through the information and verifying it as they build dossiers of people they want to hold responsible for any abuses.
Already, the Trump administration has imposed sanctions on Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Iran’s minister of information and communications technology, over the internet shutdown. U.S. officials declined to say whom they would sanction next.
But, tellingly, the State Department’s “Rewards for Justice” Twitter account retweeted Dubowitz’s call for them to sanction 10 specific Iranians he listed. That account’s pinned tweet tells Iranian readers, in Farsi, “We are waiting to hear from you.”
U.S. officials also won’t say what exactly they plan to do to prevent an Iranian internet blackout in the future, although there have been efforts in the past to help Iranians evade censors. Some of the Trump administration’s critics, meanwhile, argue that U.S. sanctions have made it harder for Iranians to access the tools they need to work around the regime’s information controls.
Iran’s leaders have blamed the United States, Israel and other longtime scapegoats for the unrest. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed a “deep-rooted, widespread and very dangerous” conspiracy. But the protests have exposed tensions among Iran’s rulers, with various officials trying to distance themselves from the gas price hike – including Khamenei, who pointed out he’s not an expert on petroleum pricing.
Ariane Tabatabai, an Iran specialist at the RAND Corporation, noted that some Iranian state media outlets’ coverage has simply transliterated the English word “ leader” — instead of using a Farsi word, such as “rahbar” — to reference those who directed the protests, another potential sly way of casting the blame on foreigners.
Tabatabai said that blame game is one reason the Trump administration has to be careful about its next steps, especially on the messaging front. “Statements – if more of them come – could be counterproductive if they are seen as taking credit” for the protests, she said.
Trump administration officials, however, appear eager to keep speaking out. They are weighing having Pompeo deliver a speech about Iran and human rights in the coming days; his top Iran envoy, Brian Hook, is also expected to give at least one speech at a think tank. And that’s on top of stepped-up messaging on various social media platforms.
Many in the administration believe Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, failed to take advantage of the situation in 2009, when Iranians demonstrated en masse over the questionable results of the country’s presidential election. Obama eventually did speak out in support of the Green Movement, so named because it was the color of the campaign of an opposition candidate. But many viewed Obama’s support for the protesters as too late and too meek.
Part of the reason Obama held off on making tough comments was the long-held belief that supporting Iran’s protesters would undermine their cause by linking them with the West. Because of the anger spurred in Iran by the U.S. and British role in a 1953 coup there, U.S. officials have long been wary about openly aligning themselves with popular movements in Iran.
But many Trump administration officials believe that conventional wisdom is no longer wise, and that the Iranian people, many of whom are young and know nothing beyond the repressive rule of the clerics, would welcome outside help of any kind. They also argue that since the regime is likely to blame the United States no matter what, the U.S. might as well offer its full-throated support.
One enduring question is how far Trump himself wants to go.
Although the president happily walked away from the Obama-era nuclear deal of 2015 and has raged against Iran’s clerics on many occasions, he’s been keen on making a deal with the government there and averse to a military confrontation. During the U.N. General Assembly in September, Trump came close to holding a phone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and even worked out a four-point document with his Iranian counterpart, only to have the diplomatic efforts collapse and Rouhani fail to answer his call.
On Tuesday, Trump momentarily sparked confusion when he said “no” when asked if the U.S. supported the Iranian protesters. He later clarified that he had misunderstood the question, apparently thinking it was about whether the U.S. was financially backing the protests. He also issued his tweet asserting his moral support for the demonstrators.
But even supporters of Trump’s maximum pressure campaign say he can do more than just offer tough talk and sanctions if he truly wants the regime to change its behavior. Dubowitz said he’d like to see Trump lift – at least in some degree – the travel ban he imposed on Iranians in his first days in office.
The ban bars nearly all Iranians from entering the United States. Iranian-Americans complain that it has separated loved ones and otherwise hurt innocent ordinary Iranians who could have come to love America and appreciated democratic values.
Lifting the ban would send a strong signal of U.S. support to the Iranian men, women and youth on the streets, argued Dubowitz: “This would be the moment.”