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Argument: Iran’s Protest Movement Doesn’t Vindicate Trump’s ‘Maximum Pressure’ Campaign Iran’s Protest Movement Doesn’t Vindicate ...
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.”
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