As anti-government rallies gather momentum across Iran — taking outside analysts and the Iranian government
alike by surprise — President Trump and his foreign policy advisers are likely asking what they can do to support the protesters.
Mr. Trump, after all, has said Iran is responsible for nearly all the problems of the Middle East, and accuses the country of spreading “death destruction and chaos all around the globe.” The president would no doubt love to announce that his tough approach has delivered results by undermining the repressive Iranian government, and that his predecessor’s more conciliatory approach failed.
On Friday 29 December night and again on Saturday, Mr. Trump sent out tweets calling on the Iranian government to “respect their people’s rights” and warning that “The world is watching!” That’s more than enough. At this stage, we have little idea what these protests are really about or where they will lead. But we can be fairly certain that high-profile public support from the United States government will do more harm than good.
This advice goes against the president’s instincts, given the centrality of Iran to his agenda and his unquenchable desire to claim credit for anything positive that happens on his watch.
Many top Trump administration officials have long insisted that the only path to true change in Iran — and the best way to deal with Iran’s support for terrorism and its potential nuclear weapons program — would be for regime change.
On Friday, the State Department reiterated Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s support for those in Iran seeking a “peaceful transition of government.” But if Iranians do choose to rise up and push aside their government, it will not be the result of support from Washington.
One reason to worry that Mr. Trump may try to seize the moment by championing the protesters is that it has become an article of faith among President Barack Obama’s critics that in 2009 he missed a golden opportunity to do just that, when many Iranians took to the streets after a disputed election result. But it was never clear what difference American rhetorical support would have made then, other than allowing the Iranian government to depict the protesters as American lackeys, giving the security services more of a pretext to crack down violently.
Even if Mr. Obama’s support might have somehow been helpful to the Iranian opposition, Mr. Trump’s almost certainly will not be. Whatever Iranians think of their own government, they are unlikely to want as a voice for their grievances an American president who has relentlessly opposed economic relief for their country and banned them from traveling to the United States.
The protests taking place in Iran today are perhaps a sign that, in the long run, the Iranian people want to be accepted as free, responsible members of the international community and that in time they might demand and achieve real change. The best way for Mr. Trump to help test that proposition and increase the chance of its success is to do nothing.
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