IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Trump's support for Iranian protesters could hurt them — and empower hardliners

Blinded by his ignorance of the region and focus on campaign promises, Trump is walking a dangerous line in Iran.
Image: Tehran Protests
University students attend an anti-government protest inside Tehran University, in Tehran, Iran.AP

President Donald Trump is quickly approaching another stumbling block in Iran-U.S. diplomacy: Will he pull the U.S. out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA), or nuclear deal? While Congress has seemed hesitant to destroy the agreement, a number of events, beginning with Iran’s ballistic missile launches and now bolstered by a new wave of political unrest in the country, have conspired to make the decision potentially even easier for America’s commander-in-chief.

Trump has made no secret of his disdain for the Iran deal, one of President Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy achievements, nor has he hidden his unyielding antipathy toward the Islamic Republic. His series of tweets on the protests, though, betray something more than mere concern for the well-being of the Iranian people, or the lack of democratic values in that country.

Rather, they seem to be providing ammunition for his promise to “tear up” the nuclear deal — or the “worst deal ever negotiated” in the president’s own words. In the process, however, he could end up shielding — even empowering — the hardline Iranians he claims to be against, while hurting the rank and file protesters who are suspicious of both their own government and the U.S.

Trump, as evidenced by his gloating remarks after declaring Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital and his promise to move the U.S. embassy there, likes nothing more than to publicly and loudly fulfill a campaign promise. In the case of Iran, Trump again betrays his ignorance of a situation with damaging and potentially ironic consequences.

There are facts we know about the protests in Iran that are indisputable, and then there is the fake news that has been disseminated — primarily via Twitter or other social media platforms — in the days following the first reports of unrest. One fact is that the protests began in Mashhad, Iran’s second largest city and a deeply conservative and holy city for Shiite Muslims, for whom it is also a pilgrimage site. Imam Reza, the eighth Imam, is buried there. It was the only major city that Ayatollah Raisi, the archconservative challenger to President Hassan Rouhani in the elections of 2017, won. Raisi’s father-in-law, the hardline conservative Ayatollah Alamolhoda, is a fierce critic of Rouhani and a Friday Prayer Leader there. He appeared to have supported, if not encouraged, the initial protests over economic issues.

In Iran, Trump again betrays his ignorance of a situation with damaging and potentially ironic consequences.

Some analysts, inside Iran and outside, believe this suggests that hardliners instigated the protests to undermine Rouhani at a time when the economy is weak, prices for basic foodstuffs are skyrocketing, unemployment is rampant, especially among the youth and to legitimize the claim that Rouhani’s nuclear deal had done nothing for the people of Iran.

Another fact is that while the protests may not yet be as widespread as those that took place in 2009-2010, their message resonates with many people in Iran who are frustrated and unhappy with the pace of economic recovery. The Rouhani administration promised sweeping changes while securing mass support for the nuclear deal — and so far, such promises have not been fulfilled.

Some protesters may also believe they have nothing to lose by demanding an end to the theocracy — even while no one has articulated what should replace it.

Then there are the things we still don’t know about the protests. For example, we don’t know whether there are outside forces — Saudi, Emirati, U.S. or Israeli — working to stoke more unrest through violence as the Iranian government (and the Supreme Leader) has claimed.

President Donald Trump, accompanied by U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley, arrives at the United Nations on Sept. 18, 2017.Richard Drew / AP file

Despite the many unknowns, liberals and conservatives in the U.S. haven’t been shy about jumping to offer opinions both for and against support. Conservatives seem to mostly support the protesters, with some even arguing that Obama’s reticence in 2009 only made the regime in Iran stronger. Meanwhile some liberals and centrists have argued against U.S. interference, worrying that meddling could de-legitimize the protestors and give the government more of an excuse to crack down violently.

The truth is there is very little the U.S. can do, short of military action, that will affect what is happening on the ground in Iran. This is not Eastern Europe. Indeed, America’s history in Iran, as Obama recognized, is fraught with suspicion and downright resentment, from the 1953 coup against Mossadeq to U.S. support for the Shah’s secret police.

While most Iranians are far too young to even remember the Shah, they do remain suspicious of U.S. intentions. This is unlikely to change, especially now that Trump has included them in his travel ban, called the Persian Gulf the “Arabian Gulf” — a deeply emotional and nationalistic issue for all Iranians — and threatened to further sanction an already heavily sanctioned country. The imposing of more strident sanctions can only increase tensions, especially because such sanctions could hurt some of the very Iranians with grievances and those currently taking to the streets.

There is very little the U.S. can do, short of military action, that will affect what is happening on the ground.

The biggest irony, however, is that Trump’s desire to plunge a dagger into the heart of the JCPOA may ultimately prove to be exactly what the original organizers of the protests — if not necessarily all the protesters themselves — were hoping for.

Although still an unknown, it’s certainly possible that the protests were started by those in Iran who would like nothing more than to see the deal killed, both as a political power play and to protect their own economic interests. Not everyone in Iran wants foreign investment or the more transparent economy that could follow. Whether Trump will take this possibility into consideration — or consider it at all — before he has to decide what to do with the nuclear deal, remains highly unlikely.

Hooman Majd is a writer and NBC News contributor. Based in New York, he has written for publications including the New York Times, The Guardian, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The Financial Times, GQ, Time, The Washington Post, and Newsweek, among many others. He is the author of The New York Times bestseller "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ," as well as "The Ayatollahs' Democracy" and "The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay."