White House national security officials are focused on developing strategies to support and foster demonstrations in Iran that have gripped the country for more than a week, but are in a deadlock over whether to preserve the landmark nuclear deal and continue providing a financial lifeline to the hardline Islamic regime, according to multiple sources briefed on the Trump administration's ongoing discussions.
The White House is facing a deadline that could force the administration to provide continuing sanctions relief to Iran—including to several key entities that bolster the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, or IRGC.
Within the next week, the Trump administration will have to decide whether it will again waive economic sanctions on key Iranian entities, including its Central Bank, which provides the IRGC with a significant portion of its funding. Insiders worry this decision could solidify Iran's hardline ruling regime at a time when protesters are coming out en masse against it.
Senior White House officials acknowledge they are in a tough position as they continue to focus on supporting the Iranian protesters through a range of measures that include efforts to foster further discontent with Iran's ruling regime led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, multiple sources told the Free Beacon.
However, administration allies on the outside see a White House torn between backing a nascent revolution in Iran and preserving a nuclear deal that has only solidified the ruling regime's power.
"If you're the president and you're seeing Iranians pouring out into the streets to protest the regime, how do you waive sanctions to keep the money flowing to the regime and the IRGC?" asked Richard Goldberg, a former top official for former senator Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) and original architect of congressional sanctions against Iran.
"We need a comprehensive strategy to support the uprising and that should include cutting off financial lifelines for the mullahs," said Goldberg, a senior adviser to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who recently criticized the White House for not doing more to sanction Iran's financial lifelines.
In private meetings over the past week, White House officials have acknowledged that they were caught by surprise by the demonstrations in Iran, which have now led to the deaths of dozens and imprisonment of hundreds.
While the protests will "have a bearing" on the White House's future approach to upholding the nuclear deal, senior national security officials in the White House are said to be in a deadlock over how to proceed, multiple sources said.
Many in the West Wing want to continue providing Iran with sanctions relief and preserve the nuclear agreement. But they also realize President Trump feels trapped and embarrassed by the deal, which has repeatedly forced him to publicly waive key sanctions on Iran.
"I think you have a staff that's feeling squeezed between an obsession with what Europe thinks on one hand and a well-founded fear of walking into the Oval Office with recommendations that the president views as weak," said one veteran foreign policy insider who is close to the White House and has been briefed on the situation. "That can lead to paralysis until you either get your head chewed off or a pat on the back."
A second foreign policy insider close to the White House said, "The question is whether the president will realize that his team is using disproven Obama and European arguments about ‘fixing' a deal that is basically unfixable."
One senior White House official familiar with internal discussions told the Free Beacon that sanctions are not the only tool the administration is using to penalize the Iranian government.
"The administration is not shying away from this in any way, and I'm sure everybody has a way we could be more perfect, but in this case, it's important to note we have a president who has been unafraid on a series of things," the official said.
"The assumption that if we don't impose precisely the sanctions, [that] we're doing nothing, that's just not correct," said the official, who was not authorized to speak on record.
The administration is still wedded to the nuclear agreement, the administration official said, meaning that some of these decisions are "out of our hands."
"We're not trying to tamp anything down or stop anything," but, "it's not entirely our call," the official admitted.
Both the State and Treasury Departments declined to comment on whether the administration would waive sanctions on Iran in the coming week.
"The Trump administration is going to get physical with the Iranians. They're not sure how yet, they're not sure when. But it will need to happen," another source close to the White House told the Free Beacon.
"Their first wave of action involved directly helping the protesters getting shot," the source said. "Eventually they're going to have to turn their attention to the people doing the shooting, and that will require drying up regime resources like the Central Bank," Khamanei's financial empire.
Jamie Fly, a former senior adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), told the Free Beacon that the protests in Iran provide a good opportunity to reassess ongoing sanctions relief to Iran, the IRGC, and other entities known for supporting regional terrorism.
"The benefits from sanctions relief have been used to line the pockets of Iran's corrupt leaders and to murder Syrians, threaten Israel, and sow chaos in Yemen," said Fly, now a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund. "Why should we continue to give the regime a financial lifeline that we know is only going to continue to be used to fund terror and threats against us and Israel and to repress the Iranian people?"
Omri Ceren, managing director at the Israel Project, which has been vocal in its criticism of the nuclear agreement, agreed that the administration is heading towards a crossroad.
"Even doing the bare minimum against the regime will require considering measures that touch the nuclear deal," Ceren told the Free Beacon. "There's no way around it. The Obama administration deliberately redefined a range of non-nuclear sanctions as nuclear just so they could lift them in response to Iranian demands. So yes, by definition, considering robust human rights sanctions will bump into the deal. And that's because the sanctions lifted by the nuclear deal went way beyond nuclear sanctions."