As Iranian authorities brace for a second week of antigovernment protests, the Trump administration is weighing measures to lend support to the demonstrators.
A hardline critic of the Islamic Republic, President Donald Trump has thus far taken the opposite approach of his predecessor, President Barack Obama, who met Iran's 2009 "Green Movement" with reticence in the hopes of striking a deal on the regime's nuclear program.
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Trump has given full-fledged rhetorical support to the anti-regime protesters, but questions remain regarding the actions the administration will take to substantiate the president's statements.
The White House has been tightlipped on whether Trump will reimpose U.S. sanctions on Iran's nuclear program, which would effectively terminate the pact implemented under the Obama administration. Trump threatened in October to pull out of the agreement if Congress and European allies failed to strengthen its provisions before its recertification deadline in mid-January. Congress has yet to move on the issue.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters on Tuesday that Trump is "going to keep all of his option on the table" amid the antigovernment demonstrations. She said the president wants to see the Iranian regime grant its citizens "basic human rights" and stop supporting terrorism.
Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said the administration's messaging approving of the protesters has been "spot on." He acknowledged the risk of the regime using American sentiments of support to undercut the demonstrations as a product of outside meddling, but said the regime will try to smear the protesters as foreign proxies regardless of the facts on the ground.
"Rhetorically, the administration cannot hold its punches," Taleblu told the Washington Free Beacon. "The hardest of hardliners—the Supreme Leader and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps—they castigate any grassroots, organic uprising as a result of foreign meddling … so the U.S. might as well do the strategic and morally right thing and that's to lend support to the cause of freedom in Iran."
Trump has issued a series of tweets reiterating U.S. support for the demonstrations, warning Iran the "world is watching" while blaming the Obama administration's nuclear pact for exacerbating the economic circumstances in the country.
The State Department on Tuesday called on the Islamic Republic to stop blocking social media apps such as Instagram and Telegram and urged Iranians to use virtual private networks (VPNs) to circumvent the government's censorship efforts.
Taleblu said the administration should calibrate its messaging by ensuring Iranians can access broadcasts by U.S.-government affiliated media like Voice of America and Radio Farda, a Farsi version of Radio Free Europe. He said by presenting the facts on the ground in an unbiased manner, these outlets can "poke a hole through the veneer" that Iran has been stable and prosperous over the past decade.
"These outlets have the capability of saying, ‘No, look at the conditions on the ground. Look how the Iranian government treats its own people and look how the Iranian government prioritizes its own interests. It tries to fight and kill and spend copious amounts of money in Syria rather than investing that money at home,'" Taleblu said.
During the 2009 uprisings, Iran jammed satellite transmissions of American-funded radio and television stations into the country. Jim Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at the Heritage Foundation, said the United States should threaten to slap sanctions on companies that sell jamming technology to Iran. He said the administration could go further by quietly providing technology that helps Iranians workaround the government's censorship attempts.
Another way in which the United States can back the antigovernment demonstrators is by imposing non-nuclear sanctions should the Islamic Republic continue its violent crackdown on demonstrators. Phillips said the sanctions could include travel bans on authorities that commit human rights violations against the protesters. Taleblu said the Trump administration should target Ayatollah Khameini's business empire.
"If the Iranian people are out in the street saying death to the dictator, it helps for the U.S. government to actually have sanctions on that dictator and to impede the repression of that dictator and to block the financial assets of that dictator and to be in the process of dismantling that dictator's financial empire," Taleblu said.
Finally, both Phillips and Taleblu said the administration must urge European allies to engage in diplomatic isolation. Given that European states such as the United Kingdom and Germany have a greater stake in upholding the nuclear agreement, Phillips said the United States should threaten to reapply nuclear sanctions, in effect blowing up the deal, if those countries fail to cutoff their business dealings with the regime.