Trump Reiterates Support for Iranian Protesters, but Also Criticizes Obama

U.S. President Donald Trump has given full-throated support to the anti-government protesters in Iran. But the rising tide of unrest there complicates an already vexing decision for him: whether he should rip up the nuclear deal struck by President Barack Obama, The New York Times reports.

Starting in two weeks, Trump faces a series of deadlines on whether the United States should reimpose sanctions on Iran that were lifted as a result of the agreement, but with the little progress in the improving of the nuclear agreement terms and the signs of a crackdown in Iran, analysts worry that Trump’s patience will run out and fear that if he acts now, it would shift the blame from the Iranian government, which is besieged by the protests and charges of corruption, to the U.S.

For Trump, the first major eruption of political unrest in Iran since 2009 carries opportunities as well as risks. The White House emphasized its unyielding support for the demonstrators, which are in contrast to the more reticent approach taken by Obama in 2009 during protests that became known as the Green Movement.

Despite their fears about the fate of the deal, some Obama officials endorsed Trump’s vocal support for the protesters, favorably comparing it with Obama’s muted response when thousands of Iranians took to the streets in June 2009 after a rigged presidential election. Obama withheld criticism, in part, because dissidents warned them that Tehran would use that endorsement to discredit the movement. With hindsight, some say, that was a mistake because the protesters deserved the United States’ public backing, and the Iranian government would have labeled them foreign stooges either way.

“For a lot of us who were in the administration, there is some regret. At that moment, it would have been desirable to be more outspoken on behalf of the rights of the Iranian people,” said Daniel B. Shapiro, a former senior National Security Council official and ambassador to Israel.

Trump himself sought to link the grievances of the Iranian demonstrators to his predecessor’s policies, saying that the corruption of Iran’s leadership had been fueled by the benefits of the nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration.

“The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime. All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their ‘pockets,” he said in an early-morning tweet, apparently referring to the Iranian funds that were freed up when Iran agreed to constraints on its nuclear program.

But Trump’s invocation of Obama and the nuclear deal muddies his message, analysts said, by turning the spotlight away from the Iranian government’s economic failures to the lingering debate in Washington over the nuclear agreement. Between Jan. 11 and 17, Trump faces new deadlines on whether to recertify the deal and to continue to waive sanctions.

“He was going to be put on the spot, anyway, explaining why he was keeping the deal alive without these improvements. If the Iranians are killing people in the streets when it comes time for Trump to extend the sanctions waivers, it is hard to see him doing it. Yet killing the deal could enable the Iranian government to galvanize domestic support against the U.S. rather than face questions about why it has not been able to improve Iran’s economy,” said Philip H. Gordon, a senior National Security Council official in the Obama administration.

Even critics of the deal said they worried that the protests would tempt Trump to abandon it rather than try to improve it. The administration should also redouble its efforts to push back on Iran’s military adventurism in the region. Military commanders and Pentagon officials say they are drafting plans to counter what they call Iran’s “destabilizing” activities, like supporting Hezbollah and other militant proxy groups, supplying missile technology to Houthi rebels in Yemen, and carrying out cyberoperations.

“We’re not trying to go to war with Iran, but we are trying to hold them accountable for some of the things they’re doing, and we’re trying to roll some of that back,” Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the head of the Pentagon’s Central Command, said in a recent interview in Bahrain.