Trump Weighs Sanctions to Punish Iran Crackdown

The president offers blunt support for protesters in tweets, but a pivotal decision on the Iran nuclear deal is looming.

Iranian students protest at the University of Tehran during a demonstration driven by anger over economic problems, in the capital Tehran on Dec. 30, 2017. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian students protest at the University of Tehran during a demonstration driven by anger over economic problems, in the capital Tehran on Dec. 30, 2017. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The White House plans to impose sanctions against Iranian regime forces responsible for a violent crackdown on protests, administration officials said Wednesday, as the president vowed to support Iranian demonstrators who have taken to the streets.

While U.S. officials struggled to grasp the scale and scope of the protests that blindsided Tehran when they erupted on Dec. 28, 2017, President Donald Trump offered an outspoken endorsement of the popular unrest via Twitter Wednesday, praising the Iranian demonstrators’ “fight” before deleting his tweet and replacing it with less strident language.

“Such respect for the people of Iran as they try to take back their corrupt government. You will see great support from the United States at the appropriate time!” Trump tweeted.

But supporting the protesters risks discrediting them inside Iran, say experts and former officials, making overt U.S. support potentially counterproductive. Some lawmakers, including Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have urged the administration to show solidarity with the Iranian population by considering lifting a ban that prevents Iranians from traveling to the United States.

Additionally, Trump faces a tough choice this month on the future of the Iran nuclear deal, which could have further political consequences in Iran. Within two weeks, the president will have to decide whether to reimpose sanctions that were lifted as part of the 2015 agreement. In October, the president warned lawmakers and European governments that if they did not amend the deal’s terms, the United States would withdraw from the agreement.

A return to sanctions would give the regime an excuse for the kind of economic difficulties that have helped spark the protests, thus channeling popular ire toward America.

In a briefing with reporters Wednesday, two administration officials played down the potential effect of the president’s decision on Iran’s political landscape, saying the protests were driven by widespread dissatisfaction with the regime and frustration over economic hardship. And they declined to say whether the president this month would reimpose the sanctions that were rescinded under the nuclear deal in 2016.

But the officials also said the United States, working with its allies, could exert some constructive influence in favor of the protesters in the streets.

“We think we do [exert influence] in making our moral position clear,” said one senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The United States and other foreign governments can deliver important symbolic support to the protesters and help deter the regime from employing violent tactics if Tehran recognizes its response could jeopardize its international standing or trigger fresh sanctions, the officials said.

“They’re going to find, I think, that they can’t be a repressive, violent dictatorship on the one hand, and expect to have normal relationships with the rest of the world, the civilized world, on the other,” the official said. “So they’re going to have to choose.”

The White House is now looking into concrete steps to punish those suspected of human rights abuses in the regime’s crackdown against the protesters. The administration is sifting through information about the unrest to identify individuals and organizations that are working to crush the protests, including security services and the Basij militia that have played that role in previous crackdowns, officials said.

The United States will “use all the information sources at our disposal to be able to get actionable information about who is doing the crackdown, who is violating human rights, who is using violence against protesters and to feed that in to our sanctions designation machinery,” the administration official said.

“That requires information, but there is a lot of information out there, so we intend to start assembling that and see what we can do,” the official said.

The Trump administration has also demanded an urgent United Nations Security Council meeting to discuss the protests that have reportedly killed 21 people and planned to push for condemnation of Iran at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

In addition to lifting the travel ban, some experts have urged the administration, possibly with an assist from Silicon Valley, to make internet and social media access easier for Iranians; the regime has blocked access and many popular applications.

Former CIA Director John Brennan sharply criticized how the president has handled Iran, saying that Trump’s “bluster” over the past year had undermined Washington’s potential influence.

“With wholesale condemnation of Iran and nuclear deal over past year, Trump Admin squandered opportunity to bolster reformists in Tehran and prospects for peaceful political reform in Iran,” Brennan said on Twitter.

“Bluster is neither a strategy nor a mechanism for exercise of U.S. power and influence,” he said.

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