WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump has won plaudits for vocally supporting mass protests that have broken out in Iran, drawing favorable contrasts with predecessor Barack Obama’s more moderate approach to demonstrations in 2009.
But close Iran watchers say the real test will come when Trump is asked to back up his words with action amid an expected Iranian regime crackdown on the protesters.
Shortly after the spontaneous protests erupted — spurred by what seems to be a mix of resentment over the country’s economic woes and the regime’s oppression of its people — Trump’s press secretary on Friday released a statement expressing support for the demonstrators and warning Tehran against initiating a crackdown. Trump himself later tweeted that statement almost verbatim.
“There are many reports of peaceful protests by Iranian citizens fed up with the regime’s corruption and its squandering of the nation’s wealth to fund terrorism abroad,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “The Iranian government should respect their people’s rights, including their right to express themselves. The world is watching.”
The State Department came out with an even more forceful statement, saying the US “strongly condemns the arrest of peaceful protesters.” It further urged “all nations to publicly support the Iranian people and their demands for basic rights and an end to corruption.”
For many, those sentences marked a dramatic contrast with Obama’s initial response to the June 2009 Green Revolution, which was over a disputed election in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected.
“I think the responses are about 180 degrees apart,” said Jonathan Schanzer, a senior vice president at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a conservative Washington think tank. “The Obama administration waited for quite a long time to respond, then ultimately decided it was not an American interest to get involved.”
While the common claim among Obama critics that he said nothing is not quite true, he did refrain from taking a stance on what was unfolding at the outset.
It took him two days to first say anything, as thousands of Iranians — who were supporters of Mir Hossein Moussaka, Ahmadinejad’s opponent in the election — took to the streets. By then, riot police were deployed and violence erupted in attempts to stifle the demonstrations.
Without aligning the US on the side of the reformists, Obama said he was “deeply troubled” by the violence. “I think that the democratic process — free speech, the ability of people to peacefully dissent — all those are universal values and need to be respected.”
It was more than a week later, as the violence intensified and pressure was mounting on him to take a tougher stance, that he did. “The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings and imprisonments of the last few days,” he said.
Asked why he would not spell out consequences for Iran if it continued to brutalize its own people, he said, “Because I think that we don’t know yet how this thing is going to play out. I know everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle. I’m not.”
While Trump has made common cause with the Iranian people, he has also resisted creating the expectation the US will take harsh action if Iran resorts to the brutality it has employed in the past.
His statement “put the United States squarely behind the cause of those who are frustrated with what the system has delivered in terms of the quality of life for ordinary Iranians, but it hasn’t fueled expectations that the US is going to directly intercede,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert with the Brookings Institution.
There is some tact to that approach, she said, like there was with Obama, as too foreceful a statement could help fuel Iranian regime claims that foreign governments and other external actors are trying to sow dissent.
“I don’t think it has created a legitimate association of the United States with what is happening, despite the fact that the Iranians will always interpret any sort of opposition activity as foreign inspired,” she said.
And yet, Trump’s true test will likely come in the coming days when Tehran is expected to clamp down on the protesters, possibly employing the same brutal tactics seen in 2009. Three demonstrators were already shot dead on Saturday by the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps, according to reports.
“We have to see what happens as the crackdown erupts in earnest, as I suspect it will,” Maloney added. “Ultimately there is not a lot the United States can do to stop the Iranians from cracking skulls. We can express horror and displeasure, but fundamentally, we are bystanders to what is happening in Iran.”
The “real question is how to go from rhetorical support to something that feels tangible to the Iranian people,” Schanzer said.
The first step would likely be sanctions, he said. That would include imposing harsh penalties on the IRGC and its affiliates, as well as any entities that are not protected under the 2015 Iran deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Obama’s critics have charged that his inaction in 2009 squandered a historic opportunity to effect regime change, or at least reforms. This year’s protests may be an even bigger historic moment, with the protests not targeting a specific candidate, but the regime as a hole.
“The reason you have these protests, I think, is because you have a huge dissonance between the regime in Iran and the people in Iran,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iranian-American and a senior Iran analyst for the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “The reason you have that dissonance is because the activities of the regime don’t reflect the interests or the values of its people.”