Trump tweets his support for ‘hungry’ Iranian protesters, but might hit them with more sanctions

People gather to protest over high cost of living in Tehran, Iran on December 30, 2017. CREDIT: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

A week of protests in across Iran have resulted it at least a dozen deaths and mass arrests, and the administration of President Donald Trump has responded by threatening the country with more sanctions.

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told Fox News on Tuesday that the United States is considering even more sanctions against Iran if the government tries to stifle the protests. She added that Trump “stands with the Iranian people.”

But sanctions are the wrong approach, said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, professor of political science at Syracuse University. He added that Trump’s response to the protest is seen as “opportunistic” by the Iranian people.

“The fact is, there’s not much the U.S. can do to change the facts on the ground in Iran, so resorting to sanctions and other moves to punish Iran is a convenient tool,” he said.

“Frankly, it’s quite ironic, and I don’t think it’s lost on people that Trump includes Iran among the countries for his travel ban, indeed, it’s the country that is most affected by the travel ban, and then goes and talks about ‘the great Iranian people,’ — come on. These two do not go hand in hand,” added Boroujerdi.

Still, President Trump took to Twitter to condemn the Iranian government, posting multiple messages that seemed to support the protesters and called for regime change in Iran:

The protests have sparked renewed interest in regime change not just in Trump, but among U.S. lawmakers and pundits. But when it comes to the fall of the Islamic Republic, Boroujerdi said that “there is a lot of wishful thinking” on behalf of Western commentators and some in the Iranian diaspora.

Boroujerdi said the fact that the protests started in Mashhad, where Ebrahim Raisi, a political rival to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and his father-in-law, Ahmad Alamolhoda, are “kings” seems to indicate that the protests might have been initially orchestrated to “humiliate the Rouhani administration,” but then got out of hand.

In other words, some of the protesters with whom Trump is siding might just be doing the bidding of the Iranian government. Indeed, what’s troubling is that some of Trump’s tweets indicate he might not fully understand what is happening within the country.

“Any hopes for an ‘Iranian Spring’ are very probably premature,” said Malcolm Byrne, Iran expert and deputy director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

“There’s been a long-festering sense of discontent among a lot of Iranians, at least in the capital, about the government — inefficiencies, corruption, and so on.  This latest outburst is obviously significant and part of the reason is the fact that it’s taking place in other cities and towns, away from Tehran,” he told ThinkProgress via e-mail.

“When it comes to countries where the West disapproves of the regime, outside observers have a tendency to assume the population must be feeling the same way. But that’s usually more a function of projection than detailed analysis — which is hard to get when access is so limited,” added Byrne.

The lack of historical context has not stopped President Trump from sharing his thoughts. In a tweet on Tuesday, Trump ignored several rounds of protests in previous years, saying that Iranians were “finally acting against” the regime.

After the 2009 presidential election, which deemed Mahmoud Ahamadinejad as the winner, millions of people protested in several cities across Iran. Supporters of opposition candidates questioned the legitimacy of those results and took to the streets, in various waves, for several months. In 2011, anti-government protests took place in February and March, resulting in casualties and arrests. There have been other pockets of isolated protests since then — as recently as May — some calling for political change, others for fiscal reform and transparency.

Trump’s words have ‘zero impact’

Another crucial point that is not reflected in Trump’s comments — and a great number of pundits in U.S. media — is the fact that this latest round of protests is rooted less in the need for radical regime change and more in the economic hardship endured by low- and middle-income Iranians, much of which can be blamed on government corruption and mismanagement.

For instance, the country’s national budget has failed to fully allocate funds for development, which hits virtually every industrial sector. With unemployment holding at somewhere between 11.3 percent (according to U.N. figures) and 12.4 percent (as per the International Monetary Fund), the numbers might actually be higher. That, combined with an inflation rate of almost 10 percent has meant that the poorest households spend up to 43 percent of their income on basic supplies, according to the Statistical Center of Iran.

Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, professor of economics at Virginia Tech University said unemployment numbers are higher for the young — at least 25 percent among men between the ages of 20 and 29, and 50 percent for women in the same age range. Rouhani’s latest budget also cuts subsidies — about $90 a month — to many Iranians, while increasing funds to religious institutions. And to top off the fiscal bad news, there’s talk of raising gas prices. Frustrations surrounding social conservatism — for instance, there were over 200 arrests over winter solstice celebrations — only add to the sense of discontent.

The Iranian middle class, including the influential bazaar merchants, is largely avoiding this rounds of protests, Boroujerdi noted. “None of these people who are capable of paralyzing the Iranian economy … have been joining this movement. They’ve been sitting on the fence and trying to see how events transpire there.”

The main source of the concern is potential instability resulting from regime change, which, said Boroujerdi, “sends shivers down the spines of the middle class.”

It’s unclear how Trump thinks new sanctions — or snapping back other sanctions that were lifted as part of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran — will benefit struggling Iranians. His response stands in stark contrast to that of his predecessor, President Barack Obama, who responded to the 2009 protests by saying that while he was troubled by the government’s violent response to protesters, he had no intention of meddling in the affairs of a sovereign nation.

Obama went on to sign a deal with Iran and other permanent U.N. Security Council members (United Kingdom, France, Russia, China) and Germany in 2015  that offered Iran sanctions relief in favor of scaling back its nuclear program and opening its nuclear energy facilities to regular inspections. President Rouhani, in his first term at the time, had run for office on a platform that promised economic reform and greater social freedoms, but he has since failed to deliver on those promises well into his second term.

Trump has been focused on undoing the deal or trying to renegotiate the nuclear deal — something Iran has said it will not do. He went so far as to refuse to recertify the deal in October, as he is required to do so every 90 days, leaving the door open for Congress to snap-back some of the sanctions lifted under the agreement. U.S. lawmakers did not take action within the time frame afforded to them, but, as Boroujerdi points out, there’s always the next round.

“When it’s time for the administration to once again recertify the nuclear deal [on January 13], if the Trump administration decides to totally negate it [the deal] that is certain going to fuel the nationalistic sentiment in Iran, and that will be a big gift to the regime,” said Boroujerdi.

Repeated signalling by the Trump administration that the United States will pull out of the nuclear deal, said Salehi-Isfahani, has worsened the crisis in Iran.

“Sanctions continue at many levels,” he said, explaining that Rouhani is not entirely to blame for Iran’s financial troubles.

So, in what way does agitation by Trump and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley help Iranians grappling with unemployment and inflation?

“None,” said Salehi-Isfahani. “Nobody can help the conservatives better than Trump and Nikki Haley, who appear in in the eyes of Iranians as anti-Iran, not anti-[Iranian] government,” he said, adding, “So, whatever Trump says has zero impact. Iran has fought hard to become an independent country, and that independence is real … I see this as domestic politics for U.S. consumption …Trump is going full-force.”

“Iran is an island of stability in a volatile region … in that sense, it’s best for them [The U.S.] to just not do anything,” he said.