As a new year’s wave of street protests rocks Iran, the demonstrations put President Trump in an awkward bind—right as he faces a new deadline to decide whether to continue on with the Iran nuclear deal he loathes.
By the end of this week, in fact, the president who called that agreement the “worst deal ever”—and refused, despite the evidence, to certify Iranian compliance with it—is expected to once again keep the deal alive by waiving U.S. sanctions on the Iranian government that were suspended when the agreement was made.
That, at least, is the consensus of a half dozen of Washington’s top Iran policy experts I canvassed over the last few days.
Then again, no one is really sure. A year into his tenure, Trump’s foreign policy remains as unpredictable and at times capricious as the man himself. “Predicting Trump,” deadpanned Dennis Ross, a longtime adviser on the region to presidents in both parties, “requires more humility than anticipating developments in the Middle East.”
Even when it’s clear what his advisers support and how they have counseled him, the president has repeatedly shown willingness to balk at their plans – or to make his own policy declarations by Twitter fiat, as he seems to have done already several times in just the first few days of 2018, on subjects as varied as aid to Pakistan and the Palestinians and nuclear talks with North Korea.
It hasn’t gotten as much attention as it should amid the national debate over Trump’s fitness for office occasioned by the publication of a scathing new insider book, but the story of Trump’s Iran policy is a great example of how the president’s willingness to flout the counsel of his own team can land him in a foreign policy mess, or exacerbate an existing one.
Last year, both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis advocated that Trump remain in the Iran nuclear deal and attest to Iranian compliance with its terms. Both pointed out that nothing in the deal stopped Trump from taking tougher action on Iran outside the narrow terms of the arrangement, which is meant to halt the country’s nuclear weapons program. But in October Trump overruled them – while leaving his actual policy an ambiguous quagmire. That’s because he “decertified” the deal and yet did not pull out of it, saying instead that he would try to work with Congress and European allies to force new conditions on Iran.
But little progress has been made with either Congress or the Europeans, a broader policy review on how to counter Iran across the Middle East has still yet to be rolled out, and in the meantime, Iran has emerged as among the first genuine foreign policy tests of 2018.
Over the holidays, a wave of protests broke out across the country, marking the most widespread public dissent in the Islamic Republic since the 2009 Green Movement that erupted after presidential elections that spring returned hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. Now, amid an ongoing crackdown that has seen mass arrests and at least a couple dozen protesters killed, Trump has publicly tweeted support for the dissenters. At the same time, his advisers have been meeting privately to try to figure out how to deal with the protests and the awkward timing problem: this coming Friday’s congressionally mandated deadline for Trump either to once again certify Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal and waive sanctions, or follow through on his tough rhetoric and move forward with blowing up the deal, painstakingly negotiated by Barack Obama’s administration with Iran and five other world powers.
“Prediction: waivers will be issued, decertification will be made again,” said Mark Dubowitz, head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a key outside adviser to the Trump administration on Iran. Like others, he expects a move on Capitol Hill for new legislation revisiting the deal as well as additional sanctions to punish the Iranian government for its latest crackdown, and the bipartisan leadership of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was consulting last week with the White House on what language would look like.
But Washington in the age of Trump is no longer certain of its judgment, or the predictive instincts that come from watching presidents of both parties up close grapple for decades with the dilemma of Iran. “I saw a senior official just yesterday who still had no idea what Trump would do,” a former top U.S. government adviser on Iran told me.
“The real test comes this week,” says Suzanne Maloney, a leading Iran expert who worked on the State Department policy planning staff in the final two years of the Bush administration and for ExxonMobil during Tillerson’s tenure as its CEO. “My sense is that what’s happening inside Iran plays directly into the narrative that consumes at least those who are advising Trump, which is that one can’t do transactions with an inherently evil entity, and that fundamentally the problem is not about the nuclear program or about Iran’s involvement in Syria or other places in the region. Fundamentally, the problem is the nature of the regime.”
“And so, to the extent that the president hears that view echoed from Iranians on the streets, it may harden his perception and potentially tempt him to take very disruptive action,” Maloney tells me in a new interview for The Global POLITICO, our weekly podcast on world affairs. “I think it would be a big mistake, but that will be something that we’ll have to contend with. "
If Trump’s foreign policy is unpredictable, events inside Iran have historically been even harder to predict. The Iranian Revolution in 1979 was so unexpected that the CIA famously concluded in an analysis just days before that the shah’s regime was secure and nowhere near a “revolutionary” state. During the Bush administration, Maloney remembers, she waged a lonely, “tearful” battle to contradict her colleagues and present then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice with an analysis predicting Ahmadinejad’s initial presidential victory. Then Ahmadinejad won – and Washington was surprised all over again by the reformist backlash to him that came a few years later.
So it wasn’t exactly shocking when this latest wave of protests inside Iran also erupted without anticipation, either to the government in Tehran that has seemed slow to respond or to those in Washington charged with making policy. “We never learn the lesson,” Maloney says. “We are persistently surprised by developments in Iran.”
Perhaps the real surprise is the incredible persistence and bravery with which thousands of Iranians have defied the conventional wisdom in Washington, and elsewhere, that the theocratic rule of the ayatollahs is stable and, four decades in, largely unchallenged. “The frame that many on both sides of the aisle here in Washington have had for some time is that Iran is fundamentally a stable place, that Iranians prefer evolution to revolution. They want democracy; they want change; but they’re not willing to risk their lives and livelihoods on the streets,” Maloney points out. “That may, in fact, characterize well the majority of Iranians. But, it certainly doesn’t characterize the thousands who’ve gone to the streets over the course of the past few days. So, humility is something we all have to keep in mind with respect to Iran.”
Someone who knows all too well about Iranian bravery in the face of repression is Maziar Bahari, the Iranian-born journalist and filmmaker who joined Maloney on this week’s Global POLITICO. Bahari had returned to Tehran to cover the 2009 election and subsequent protests for Newsweek and the BBC; when protests over alleged vote-rigging broke out, he stayed to cover them – then found himself dragged off to prison, where he was tortured and beaten in a failed effort by government interrogators to get him to confess he was part of a Western plot to instigate the uprising.
Bahari, who chronicled his ordeal in a bestselling book Then They Came for Me later made into a film by Jon Stewart, argued in our conversation that the latest demonstrations in Iran – while “they have puzzled everyone in Iran and outside of Iran” – ought to represent a recognition that the government is much less stable than it might seem, that it will face such protests whenever there is even a bit of space for such demonstrations to occur. “The regime, the Iranian government, might be able to suppress the protest for a few days, maybe a few weeks, a few months, or even a few years,” he says, “but because of these protests, unemployment, corruption, the ineffectual Islamic system that has been Iran for the past 40 years—these will not go away. And as a result, people will come to the streets and demonstrate any time there is a measure of space.”
Though he understands them well by now, he has little patience for the often partisan and parochial political debates that tend to shape Washington’s response to events inside Iran. In D.C., the fight over the last week has been dominated largely by pronouncements from the Trump administration – including the president himself and a toughly worded op-ed in the Washington Post by Vice President Mike Pence – vowing not to make the mistake Obama did in 2009 and fail to voice strong public support for the protesters. Several former officials who supported Obama back in 2009 in that decision have publicly renounced it this week, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as well as Ross and Maloney, who says it was a mistake to have been “abdicating responsibility.”
Bahari remembers what it was like on the streets of Tehran when the protesters – unlike today’s group, a largely Westernized, urban elite – realized Obama was not going to stick his neck out for them.
“Whether we like Mike Pence or not; whether we like Donald Trump or not—they are president and vice president of the United States. And as such, Iranian protesters, Iranian people like to hear from them,” he says. “I remember being in the streets of Tehran in 2009, when millions of people came to the streets and were demonstrating peacefully, and they wanted their votes to be counted. And it was really disappointing for them not to hear from President Obama at that time.”
Besides, Bahari added, “being anti-American is in the DNA of the Iranian government” and they would go on to accuse the United States of fomenting those 2009 protests anyway – which was, after all, what his interrogators were trying to get him to “confess.” “So, whether the Americans are quiet or vocal or screaming, it doesn’t matter. They’re going to accuse their opponents of being stooges of Americans and Israelis and the British.”
As he spoke, I couldn’t help but thinking of those protesters who had been arrested over the last week. Many will be tortured and beaten as Bahari was. Some will undoubtedly be forced to confess how they worked with Westerners to destabilize the regime.
We may not be able to predict what our own president will do next week. But the painful crackdown inside Iran, at least, seems like an awful certainty.