The direction of the current protests now sweeping Iran — a seemingly unorganized, leaderless wave of demonstrations against high prices, corruption and repressive government — is uncertain and impossible to predict.
It’s not clear whether this will be a more successful version of the Arab Spring; a Persian Spring that could lead over time to transformative change in the Iranian regime — or a short-lived outbreak of demonstrations, soon crushed by the repressive and overwhelming power of the Iranian state.
But one thing is clear — the US needs to take a deep breath and accept the reality that it has limited leverage to affect either the regime or the demonstrators in the streets. That doesn’t mean Washington needs to behave like a potted plant. Instead the key is to identify some practical steps that can strike the right balance between doing too much and not enough in the face of what’s happening on the ground.
To begin: Don’t incite
On Sunday, President Trump’s tweets acknowledging human rights violations in Iran were sufficient, (as were the tempered statements by the White House) to stand up for Iranian citizens’ rights to protest — and to push back against the regime’s determination to deny them those rights.
Going beyond that and encouraging protestors to take to the streets would be a mistake; the administration should avoid rhetoric that suggests that Washington would be prepared to protect or support protesters should they do so. That kind of rhetoric may make us feel good but could leave Iranians even more vulnerable to the repressive powers of the state, which the US would not be willing to counter.
The last thing we should be doing is creating a situation similar to 1991 when then President George H. W. Bush, with the best of intentions, encouraged Iraqis to rise up against Saddam although he would not support them when Saddam crushed the uprising.
Don’t make US the issue
The Iranian regime will manipulate and fabricate a US role in these demonstrations regardless of what we say or so. But there’s little reason or purpose to play into their arguments, as a recent Trump tweet has, by telling the Iranians in the streets that it’s “TIME FOR CHANGE!”
Trump is perhaps reacting to what he believes is a failed Obama policy. But it’s unlikely that calls like Trump’s would be taken seriously by those in the streets. Why he believes that an administration that has slapped a travel ban on Iran, rallied against the Iran nuclear accord and imposed punishing sanctions would be viewed as a savior by the Iranian public is unclear.
By pressing for change now, Trump merely solidifies the regime’s motivation to resist, allows it to delegitimize the protestors by connecting them to Washington, and will make the US look weak when it turns out that in fact no regime change occurs.
The right course of action — given the uncertainties of the moment — is to steer away from bold, empty pronouncements and toward more practical but limited steps.
So what can Trump do?
Not much that will fundamentally alter the course of the regime’s behavior or the actions of the demonstrators in the streets.
For now, trying to ensure that social media organizations do not comply with pressure from the state to shut down those instruments that have aided the demonstrations makes a good deal of sense.
Then, beginning January 11, Trump will face some key decisions on the Iran nuclear agreement, including whether to reimpose sanctions and what to do about certifying the pact. And should the regime crack down, as many expect, there will be little choice but to impose new sanctions and coordinate with the Europeans to do the same. This might well add further stress on the nuclear accord and provide an exit strategy for an administration that never believed in it.
But for now, this remains an Iranian, not an American, moment. The regime will not be deterred by the threat of US sanctions if its survival is at stake. And it may well be that Trump’s own tweet that the world is watching may be the best warning.