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Iran protests: Four options for President Donald Trump

by Ali Vitali /  / Updated 
Demonstrators protest high prices and the poor state of the economy in Dorud, in Iran's Lorestan province, on Dec. 30.
Demonstrators protest high prices and the poor state of the economy in Dorud, Iran, on Saturday.SalamPix / Abaca Press/Sipa USA via AP

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WASHINGTON — As protests continue in Iran, President Donald Trump's administration is starting off 2018 facing some consequential decisions over how to handle the demonstrations, which have turned violent.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday put forth what the White House wants to see from Iran's leaders: "basic rights" for the country's people and an end to sponsoring terrorism. If the "current leadership" in Iran can do that, she said, "OK, but that's our priority to make sure that those policies are met."

Here are some of the options the White House has:

1. Speak out

A number of conservative experts praised the administration's public support for the protesters.

Trump kicked off his first full working day of 2018 at the White House by lashing out at what he called the "brutal and corrupt" Iranian regime, while attacking Barack Obama's push for a nuclear deal with Iran. "The U.S. is watching!" Trump tweeted on Tuesday.

The president followed up Wednesday with "respect for the people of Iran" and promises of "great support from the United States at the appropriate time!"

"We should be expressing support," said Elliott Abrams, former deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush, dismissing calls for Trump to be silent about the protests as "dead wrong."

"The regime is going to claim that these protests are generated and supported by foreigners no matter what we say or do — even if we do nothing ... so you gain nothing" by being quiet, he said.

Instead, Abrams said, the more attention is put on the demonstrations, the better the chance that the Iranian government will be forced to show some restraint.

Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said speaking out on "broad principles" of support for the demonstrations is necessary. "But we shouldn't go beyond that," he added, cautioning against American leaders making it "about us."

"As long as Trump doesn't let his ego get in the way, it's generally positive," Rubin said.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., told MSNBC host Hugh Hewitt in a radio interview on Tuesday: "This is not an American moment, it's not a moment for anyone other than the Iranian people. It's important that we stand in solidarity with them and try to provide them whatever support we can."

2. Say nothing

On the other hand, some on the liberal side argue that the president needs to tone it down.

Philip Gordon, an assistant secretary of state and a White House coordinator for the Middle East during the Obama administration, wrote over the weekend that Trump should "keep quiet and do nothing."

Demonstrators protest high prices and the poor state of the economy in Dorud, Iran, on Saturday.
Demonstrators protest high prices and the poor state of the economy in Dorud, Iran, on Saturday.SalamPix / Abaca Press/Sipa USA via AP

That's reminiscent of Obama's strategy the last time mass uprisings engulfed Iran in 2009. Critics attacked the strategy at the time as not tough enough, though Obama did condemn the actions of the Iranian regime as violent images from the protests spread. Hillary Clinton, then Obama's secretary of state, has since said she regretted not being more vocal in support of the protests.

But as Trump has spoken out, he's also criticized Obama and the Iranian nuclear deal he negotiated — a tactic that Dennis Ross, special Middle East coordinator under President Bill Clinton, cautioned against.

"I think the minute you focus on the nuclear issue with the Iranians and the regime, what you’re doing is you’re basically making us the issue," Ross said on MSNBC on Tuesday. "I think it would be much better for us — I agree with the idea you shouldn’t be tweeting about it — you should have an approach. I think it'd be much better for us to highlight the cost of Iran's adventures in the region."

3. More sanctions

Trump's counselor, Kellyanne Conway, confirmed Tuesday that the administration is considering new sanctions against Iran if the regime interferes with the civilian protests.

The possible new sanctions, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, would target human rights violations, possibly aimed at the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Trump administration has previously taken tough steps against the corps, calling it a "supporter" of terrorism but stopping short of declaring it a terrorist organization — an option that could be on the table in the future.

Conway said on Fox that "the world needs to see what's happening in Iran right now."

But that might be difficult. Iranian officials partially blocked social media platforms like Instagram and the messaging app Telegram that were being used to distribute information and pictures of the unrest.

Steve Goldstein, the under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, said the State Department was continuing to reach out to Iranians on Facebook and Twitter, posting in Farsi on the department's web pages and encouraging citizens "to continue the fight for what's right and to open up Iran."

Several experts on the region also told NBC News that a critical piece of U.S. support for the protesters is ensuring there's sufficient broadcast programming accessible to them to counter the regime's claims.

"Let's give the Iranian public a narrative beyond what they're hearing on state television," Rubin said, citing his experience in Iran during the student protests in 1990 when he saw few counternarratives offered to the public.

4. Take it to the U.N.

That's what U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, plans to do.

"The U.N. must speak out," Haley said during a short press availability in New York on Tuesday. "In the days ahead, we will be calling for an emergency session, both here in New York and at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. We must not be silent. The people of Iran are crying out for freedom.”

Asked if the U.S. would take any unilateral steps in the meantime, Haley said there were no plans to do so at this time.

Action at the U.N. would be a good sign of support for the protesters, said Alireza Nader, senior international/defense researcher at the RAND Corporation.

The protests "should concern everybody because I think a violent response is coming," he said, stressing the need for the international community, especially the European Union, to warn the Iranian government against using force.

Abrams also spoke in favor of a global response to the protests.

"Keep talking about Iran, but not alone," Abrams advised Trump, urging the White House to get as many democratic nations on board while also working through the U.N. "The virtue of Trump's tweets is they get attention. And we should be trying to focus all the attention we possibly can ... on what's going on."

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