Widespread protests in Iran to test Trump administration
The protests spreading across Iran are presenting President Donald Trump with a test of his vow to adopt a tougher posture in dealing with the country than his predecessor did, as well as his administration's willingness to seek regime change.
The demonstrations, which started last week over frustrations about the economy but quickly shifted to political grievances, came two and a half months after Trump unveiled a new strategy to counter Iran and reverse what he sees as the Obama administration's lax approach. Later this month, Trump will have a chance to move beyond strong rhetoric when he is decides whether to certify that Iran is complying with the 2015 nuclear deal.
But the protests are providing an earlier window into the administration's policies as it struggles to decide how to react to demonstrations that are evolving differently than the last big protests in Iran in 2009 over election fraud. At least initially, the two American presidents used similar language, including a key catchphrase.
Trump's first reaction came Friday night on Twitter: "Many reports of peaceful protests by Iranian citizens fed up with regime's corruption & its squandering of the nation's wealth to fund terrorism abroad. Iranian govt should respect their people's rights, including right to express themselves. The world is watching!"
That is much like Obama's reaction three days after a disputed presidential election. In a news conference, he expressed respect for Iranian sovereignty but pronounced himself "deeply troubled" by the government's violence against peaceful demonstrators.
"And what I would say to those people who put so much hope and energy and optimism into the political process, I would say to them that the world is watching and inspired by their participation, regardless of what the ultimate outcome of the election was," he said. "And they should know that the world is watching."
The Iranian government eventually squelched the protests in 2009, and it is unclear whether the demonstrations currently underway will pose a greater threat to the regime.
In 2009, millions of people protested, mostly in the capital of Tehran. They had strong leaders, chief among them the losing candidate in the election. Now, the protests are spreading throughout the country but are attracted far fewer people. And they have no leaders, and no single agenda.
"It appears to be primarily a working class phenomenon," said Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council. "They're the base of the Islamic revolution. In some aspects, it's more serious than it was in 2009 when you had the effete, Tehran elite, asking, 'Where's my vote?' In some ways, they're a greater threat to the system."
One intangible factor has been the widespread use of smartphones in Iran today. They were far less common in 2009, though the State Department asked Twitter to delay a scheduled maintenance so that service would be uninterrupted in the daytime in Iran and could be used to spread information about demonstrations.
So far, however, few analysts say the conditions are right for the protests to evolve into a revolution. And despite Trump's harsh rhetoric, the U.S. government has little leverage.
"The lessons of 2009 very much apply in 2017," said Reza Marashi, research director for the National Iranian American Council who was on the State Department's Iran desk during the 2009 protests. "The protests as they stand today remain leaderless. There's a problem with creating a leaderless revolution."
Trump and his tweets are unlikely to goad Iranians into more of an uprising, experts say.
"He has no friends in that country," Slavin said. "His first act as a president was to ban Iranians from traveling here. But if his statements are irrelevant to what's going on in Iran, his actions are relevant. If he does not continue raising nuclear sanctions and pulls out of the JCPOA (nuclear agreement), that will have a more chilling effect on the willingness of anyone to invest in Iran and trade with Iran."
Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, has accused his government's "enemies" as fomenting unrest, and some argue the most effective tool in an American president's kit is reticence.
"President Obama was very careful to express sympathy with protesters in 2009, while avoiding directly fanning the flames and alienating a government he had to deal with on the nuclear issue," said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, a risk analysis firm. "I think he recognized the dangers of meddling in Iran's domestic affairs.
"President Trump has gone all in with the protesters. It's a big mistake. The sordid history of U.S.-Iran relations clearly shows that when Washington tries to exert influence, the results are unpredictable at best. Iranians are a very proud people, and U.S. involvement is more likely to unite them behind the regime than bring the result the president desires."
Marashi said he believes the protests will make it more likely that Trump will decide against waiving sanctions suspended under the Iran nuclear agreement, in effect walking away from it.
"I was skeptical he'd certify compliance," Marashi said. "Now he will absolutely, in my assessment, try to use this as justification for a decision I believe he already made."
Author information: Anne Gearan is a national politics correspondent for The Washington Post. Carol Morello is the diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, covering the State Department.