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Iran protests could give Trump an advantage on nuclear deal

President Donald Trump speaks, as Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, left, and Vice President Mike Pence, look on, during the first meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, in Washington, July 19, 2017.Trump on Jan. 3, 2018, abruptly shut down the panel, ending a brief quest for evidence of election theft that generated lawsuits, outrage and some scholarly testimony, but no real evidence that American elections are corrupt.(Stephen Crowley/The New York Times Copyright 2018)

A wave of protests against the Iranian government is adding new urgency to President Donald Trump's deliberations over whether to rip up the nuclear deal with Tehran that he has long threatened to cast aside.

Trump faces a series of key decisions starting next week -- foremost, whether to honor part the 2015 agreement that lifted restrictions on Iran's banking, oil and shipping industries. He could opt to re-impose the sanctions and risk collapse of the accord, a move that could isolate the U.S.

The protests and crackdown give Trump an unexpected opportunity to turn sustained negative attention on the Iranian government. He could use the violence to pressure a divided Congress to back new sanctions legislation. He could also urge European allies to take tougher action on Iran along with the U.S., such as new measures targeting individuals or entities that censor or harm demonstrators.

But walking away from the nuclear deal -- known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and signed by six countries and the European Union -- would likely take those opportunities off the table.

"The U.S., if we chose to re-impose sanctions under the JCPOA at this point, we would be alone in doing that," said Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former senior director for Middle East affairs under President George W. Bush.

"While I don't think you can say that they would be ineffective," Singh said, "I think it's hard to imagine that they would generate the results that we would be looking for."

For administration officials and lawmakers who want to keep the U.S. in the accord, those pending decisions have added momentum to a push for new sanctions legislation in Congress that could give the president enough political cover to keep the deal alive.

Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is spearheading an effort to forge a bipartisan compromise that would tighten restrictions on Iran while preserving the deal, in a way that would be palatable to European partners. Yet, Corker, a Tennessee Republican, cautioned that the protests shouldn't determine the fate of the deal and that the U.S. should avoid becoming involved in the discord.

"I would hope that we would not make ourselves the focus of that," Corker said. "That just gives them an outside force to focus on and divert people's interest or interest towards us instead of towards the Iranian government itself."

Corker has been working with Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, for months on the measure.

Cardin said he doesn't yet have a sense of Trump's thinking on the "complicated" decision, and that he also plans to discuss the issue this week with White House officials. "We're more than willing to be helpful, provided that Europe is OK with it, and we don't violate the agreement," he said.

Europeans are standing by the nuclear agreement even as they have criticized the crackdown on protesters.

"Breaking all contact would lead to the risk of strengthening the extremists," French President Emmanuel Macron said Wednesday evening in Paris. He urged a coordinated response by the European Union that stresses the importance of human rights without calling into question the Iran nuclear accord.

One European diplomat at the United Nations, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that preserving the agreement is of utmost importance and is separate from the protests.

The European Union, in a statement released Tuesday, said "peaceful demonstration and freedom of expression are fundamental rights that apply to every country, and Iran is no exception." The statement didn't mention the nuclear agreement.

Germany's government has been talking with the Trump administration in recent days and isn't considering restoring sanctions against Iran, according to a government official in Berlin. They plan to uphold the deal and the aim of using trade to promote change in Iran, said the official, who asked not to be identified discussing details of policy making.

Singh said European leaders want to minimize instability in the Middle East and are invested in the idea that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, could eventually bring Iranian behavior more in line with expectations of the international community.

In a letter to the U.N. Security Council and the U.N. secretary-general, Iran cited what it called "U.S. interventionist" efforts, saying that the Americans were employing "devious" measures to skirt the nuclear agreement and hurt Iran economically. In the context of the demonstrations, Iran accused Trump of inserting the U.S. "in a grotesque way in Iran's internal affairs under the pretext of providing support for sporadic protests."

U.S. officials said they did not have a hand in generating the protests and were surprised by them. But officials say they are seeking to learn what they can about how these protests differ from the demonstrations of 1978 and in 2009 and what that says about the stability of the Tehran regime.

Trump hasn't decided what course to take on the nuclear agreement, according to U.S. officials familiar with the discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity. Options addressing the future of the deal and the U.S. response to the crackdown on protesters will be presented to the president in the coming days, the officials said.

One official said the administration has previously taken a comprehensive view of Iran, suggesting the crackdown on demonstrators is likely to be a factor in Trump's decision. Trump's view is that the U.S. can play a role in deterring violence against the protesters, the official said. He voiced his support for protesters Wednesday, telling them in a tweet that the U.S. "will be with you at the appropriate time!"

Trump has long criticized the nuclear agreement, which was forged by his predecessor former President Barack Obama. In addition to Iran and the U.S., the signatories include China, France, Russia, the U.K., Germany and the European Union. In October, Trump refused to certify that it was in the U.S.'s interest, and, he's expected to do so again next week.

Corker cautioned he was not certain he could get an agreement in time for next week's deadline but expressed hope for patience "as long as the president knows that progress is being made."

Author information: Bloomberg's Kambiz Foroohar, Nick Wadhams, Birgit Jennen and Gregory Viscusi contributed.