The recent street protests in Iran, which have grown into the most significant expression of anti-government feeling since 2009, provide another foreign policy challenge for the Trump administration – one that could easily be mishandled with serious consequences for the security of the United States, Israel and the entire region.
At a very basic level, we must be deeply concerned with the loss of life that has already occurred on the streets and squares of Iranian cities – and seriously worried that the authorities will ultimately decide to crush the protests using brute force regardless of the possible death toll. The international community should use whatever influence it has over Iran’s rulers to try to avert such an occurrence.
One must also admire the courage of the protesters who are willing to risk their lives to assert their right to basic freedoms and economic opportunities.
The protests highlights the desire among millions of ordinary Iranians for a better life and the hope for a better future. We now see that anger and frustration in Iran runs deep because of the failure of the authorities to tackle rampant corruption or to deliver economic benefits for the people, even after the 2015 nuclear weapons deal that resulted in the relaxation of some sanctions.
In 2009, when the last major protests took place, conservatives harshly condemned then President Obama for staying mostly silent rather than publicly rallying behind the protesters who flooded the streets of Tehran and other cities. The administration at the time was concerned that a public display of US support would be exploited by Iranian authorities to claim that the protests were inspired and instigated by the United States – the “Great Satan.”
President Trump and Vice President Pence, apparently at least partly motivated by their desire to do the opposite of everything President Obama ever did, have already tweeted their support for the Iranian people. One tweet from President Trump read:
Iran is failing at every level despite the terrible deal made with them by the Obama Administration. The great Iranian people have been repressed for many years. They are hungry for food & for freedom. Along with human rights, the wealth of Iran is being looted. TIME FOR CHANGE!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 1, 2018
Vice President Pence tweeted:
As long as @RealDonaldTrump is POTUS and I am VP, the United States of America will not repeat the shameful mistake of our past when others stood by and ignored the heroic resistance of the Iranian people as they fought against their brutal regime… (1/2)
— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) January 1, 2018
These are of course just words. The United States has little to no influence in Iran and such verbal outbursts will do nothing to help advance the cause of the protesters. They are much more likely in fact to do the opposite, exactly as President Obama feared, by allowing the authorities to defame the protesters as tools of the United States.
But a more serious danger lurks – namely that Trump will in the very midst of these protests break the 2015 nuclear deal reached by the United States and five other world powers and endorsed by the United Nations.
At the end of next week, the president faces a deadline to renew the waivers under US law that are necessary to keep nuclear sanctions on Iran suspended – the key American obligation under the nuclear accord.
It would be grossly irresponsible for the president to fail to renew these waivers, causing the suspended sanctions to be reimposed and the United States to default on the agreement. Beyond recklessly impacting the course of protests in unpredictable and potentially harmful ways, killing the nuclear accord would isolate the United States among its allies and give Iran a pretext to resume the full scope of its former nuclear activities. That in turn could potentially put our nation back on a course that could ultimately lead to military action against the regime – and to a conflict that would be devastating for the Iranian people. The consequences for the entire region, and especially Israel, could be dire.
The stakes in the coming weeks are high and the best course for the United States would be to say little and avoid doing harm. It would be wonderful if the Iranian protesters succeeded in winning for themselves new freedoms. But empty words from Trump and Pence won’t help them, while irresponsible actions could ultimately damage an agreement that has made Israel, the Middle East, the United States and the entire world safer.