Iran’s Protest Movement Doesn’t Vindicate Trump’s ‘Maximum Pressure’ Campaign

Further steps to asphyxiate the country’s economy will backfire.

Iranian rotesters gather around a burning car during a demonstration against an increase in gasoline prices in Tehran, on Nov. 16.
Iranian rotesters gather around a burning car during a demonstration against an increase in gasoline prices in Tehran, on Nov. 16. AFP/Getty Images

Iran is facing its most serious protests since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. What began as a reaction to a sudden, 50 percent rise in fuel prices last month has since mushroomed into a far more generalized expression of anger. Facts remain muddled, in part because Iran initially imposed a total internet blackout, but credible sources suggest security forces have killed at least several hundred protesters in a brutal crackdown, with hundreds more injured and up to 7,000 arrested. Coming less than two years after a spate of protests throughout the country, this latest unrest suggests broad-based discontent with the regime and a deep-seated desire for economic and political change.

For the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump and many of its supporters, the unrest comes as vindication—proof of the success of the “maximum pressure” campaign that Trump launched when he exited the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018. The U.S. State Department’s top envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, said that the administration was “very pleased with the protests,” took some credit for providing “the tools” Iranian protesters use to communicate, and cited casualty figures more than twice the level of outside estimates. Hook’s boss, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said the protests were “a direct result of economic collapse” that the United States accelerated through sanctions, and has asked protesters to share information for the State Department to publicize. And, after initially confusingly denying that the United States was supporting the protesters, Trump reversed course and tweeted, “The United States of America supports the brave people of Iran who are protesting for their FREEDOM. We have under the Trump Administration, and always will!”

The encouragement of the protests and expressions of satisfaction about their extent are revealing. From the start, the administration has claimed its aim was to “change the behavior of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” as Pompeo put it, denying that the campaign aimed at toppling the regime. But the denials have been half-hearted, and the White House’s apparent enthusiasm for the unrest exposes what their equivocation obscured. Asked last spring whether he truly thought the Iranian regime capable of change­­—including accepting his far-reaching conditions for a new nuclear deal—Pompeo admitted it was unlikely. “[W]hat can change is the people can change the government,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is create space for the Iranian people.”

Some of the administration’s outside supporters have long been far more upfront about their desire to provoke regime change in Iran. Their theory of the case is straightforward: With less money in its coffers and a budgetary crisis on its hands, the regime will face a starker choice between funding its proxies abroad and its nuclear program or addressing its people’s dire economic needs. When it inevitably chooses poorly, it will provoke just the kind of rage now witnessed on the streets. In this view, if pressure fails, more pressure is the answer: Iran’s economy already is reportedly set to contract by more than 8 percent this year, leading some observers to conclude that Iran is facing “imminent economic collapse.” As the situation worsens, the argument goes, the Iranian people will rise up and sweep the regime away. No surprise then that the administration and its supporters have denounced European efforts to salvage the nuclear deal by allowing Iran to trade in (non-sanctioned) food and medicine, analogizing them as throwing the regime an unjustifiable “economic lifeline.”

The Iranian regime is facing a serious crisis, and its replacement by a more democratic, less aggressive, and less repressive government would be cause for celebration. Unfortunately, while such an outcome is possible, it is also one of the current protests’ least likely outcomes. As cases such as Cuba, North Korea, and Iraq have demonstrated all too well, economic strangulation—even when harsh and maintained for years or decades—does not have a great record in leading to regime collapse. And maintaining a policy of trying to bring down the Iranian regime by destroying its economy carries enormous costs and risks, for the Iranian people but also for the United States and its partners throughout the region.

The biggest immediate risk is to the Iranian people themselves. Iran’s history and its actions during the current crisis leave little doubt that the regime will stop at virtually nothing to remain in power. It’s one thing for the United States to support the protesters’ right to free expression; it’s quite another to openly encourage Iranians to try to oust the regime when the almost certain response will be greater brutality—especially when those doing the encouraging can do nothing to protect those who rise up. Iran’s leaders have largely brought this unrest upon themselves, by their record of corruption, economic mismanagement, and repression. But let’s be honest: Those calling for U.S. pressure to increase until the regime collapses are calling for what amounts to violent revolution. One prominent supporter of increased economic pressure, Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, candidly acknowledged last week that if you double down, “You have to be prepared for a major escalation.” That’s true, and it’s also playing with fire—other people’s fire. Those most likely to be burned are those the Trump administration purports to want to help.

Beyond risks of an internal crackdown, there is every reason to fear that further steps to asphyxiate Iran’s economy will backfire even in terms of the White House’s stated goals: to moderate Iran’s regional behavior and compel it to agree to more stringent nuclear restraints. The record so far is unambiguous. Iran has responded to the U.S. administration’s maximum pressure campaign with a maximum pressure campaign of its own—by attacking oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, seizing a British tanker, exploding a Saudi pipeline, shooting down a U.S. drone, conducting missile and drone strikes against Saudi oil facilities, and moving missiles into Iraq and supporting Shiite militias in Iraq that are targeting U.S. forces on military bases and cracking down on peaceful protesters. The Trump administration has not responded militarily to any of these provocations, implicitly acknowledging that neither the United States nor its partners in the region has the stomach for an escalation that Trump knows could lead to widespread casualties, economic disruption, higher gas prices in an election year, and the deeper U.S. involvement in the Middle East he pledged to avoid. Instead, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker claimed that the Iranian escalation was evidence that the maximum pressure campaign was “working,” because the Iranians often take “aggressive action when they feel under pressure.” He did not explain why a more aggressive Iran was a sign of success, but added that “things sometimes get worse before they get better.”

On the nuclear side, in response to the United States’ withdrawal from the 2015 deal, Iran has been gradually expanding its program, expanding its stockpile of enriched uranium, enriching to higher levels, testing more advanced centrifuges, and even resuming activities at its underground facility in Fordow.

In sum, instead of curbing its regional activities, Iran has redoubled them. And instead of accepting more nuclear constraints, it has begun to discard them. Tehran is facing increased pressure with each passing day, but it is applying increased pressure every day at the same time. Even as it suffers under heavy sanctions—indeed because it is suffering under those sanctions, which it considers a form of economic warfare—it seems only a matter of time before Iran acts again, either to expand its nuclear activities, block its neighbors’ oil shipments, or lash out militarily. Based on recent developments, Tehran’s leaders seem to be counting on at most a restrained U.S. response, but a miscalculation could set the entire region on fire.Instead of curbing its regional activities, Iran has redoubled them.

There remains a narrow path to avoid such an explosion. Iranian leaders need economic relief if they wish to calm the streets. Trump might welcome a chance to diminish risks of the escalation he clearly wishes to avoid and could certainly use a rare diplomatic achievement. This suggests potential for an agreement in which Iran resumes compliance with the nuclear deal, halts its regional provocations, and agrees to start negotiations on a more comprehensive agreement in exchange for the United States relaxing sanctions. French President Emmanuel Macron asserts that the U.S. and Iranian presidents had accepted these principles before negotiations broke down in New York over the nontrivial but hardly insurmountable obstacle of sequencing, with Trump demanding he first meet with his Iranian counterpart before lifting any sanctions, and Iran insisting that sanctions be lifted first.

Critics will say that such a deal would be tantamount to relieving pressure before it has achieved its full results, and throwing the regime a lifeline just as it was about to collapse. Those critics would be ignoring a few inconvenient facts: that the tightened sanctions are hurting the Iranian people far more than their rulers, that pressure is elevating the likelihood of a regional war or nuclear crisis, and that the regime will more than match any attempt to topple it with ruthless and tragically successful efforts to stay in power. Like the Soviet Union 30 years ago, the Iranian regime sooner or later will crumble under the weight of its own failures. For the United States to try to accelerate that process by impoverishing the country and placing the regime before an existential threat is a huge gamble, unlikely to pay off. Wishful thinking about regime change in the Middle East is something we have seen before. It has rarely ended well.

Philip H. Gordon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a former White House coordinator for the Middle East in the Obama administration, and the author of Losing the Long Game: the False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East.

Robert Malley is president and CEO of the International Crisis Group. He served as a special assistant for the Middle East under President Barack Obama.