President Trump’s decision to emerge this week in support of anti-government demonstrations across Iran has become a divisive political issue in the U.S. as the uprising carries into its ninth day.
The president's increasingly pointed criticism of the Iranian regime could complicate the decision-making surrounding key sanctions suspended under the Obama-era nuclear deal, as Trump has just days to decide whether to reimpose them or continue waiving them under terms negotiated by the previous administration.
The protests in cities and towns thousands of miles from Washington have sparked a roiling political debate among Democrats and Republicans about how Trump has responded relative to his predecessor, who also faced unrest in Iran early in his presidency, as well as what the protests signify about each man’s overall foreign policy.
Supporters of former President Barack Obama’s Iran strategy argue the economic troubles that touched off the protests late last week resulted from the uncertainty Trump created about the nuclear deal’s future, which they say discouraged crucial investment from flowing into the country.
Allies of the White House argue the president’s decision to shine a spotlight on the protests early in their development likely shielded Iranians from even harsher retaliation from security forces by reminding the regime that the Western world is monitoring the government’s response for evidence of human rights abuses.
“I think the president’s response has been perfect. I think he’s been really calling attention to the fact that the United States stands with these people who are yearning for freedom,” said Fred Fleitz, senior vice president for policy at the Center for Security Policy. “It’s such a contrast from the last president.”
Obama’s handling of an uprising in Iran in 2009 has come under fresh scrutiny this week given its parallels to the protests presently rocking the country. During protests over election results in the first year of his presidency, Obama declined to weigh in strongly on the side of Iranian protesters, citing concerns that the regime could weaponize his support against the demonstrations.
Dennis Ross, a former senior adviser to Obama, said Thursday during a radio interview that the approach in 2009 was potentially a mistake.
“Whether we say something or we don’t say something, the Iranians are going to accuse us,” Ross said. “They’re going to try to suggest that whatever is happening, this is a function of foreign instigation.”
“Our posture, I think, should have been more open. It should have been clear that those protests had to be respected,” Ross added.
But other former Obama officials have seized on the discussion about Iran to recall Trump’s unpopular travel ban, which temporarily suspended entry for Iranians and other natives of Middle Eastern countries.
Samantha Power, Obama’s former ambassador to the United Nations, mocked the White House’s response to the protests by highlighting Trump’s efforts to block Iranians from entering the country.
"We stand with the Iranian people so much that we won’t let them come here," Power tweeted on Monday.
Alireza Nader, senior international researcher at the Rand Corporation, said domestic debate about the Iranian protests shouldn’t break down along partisan lines.
“Don’t fall for the left-right dichotomy in the United States,” Nader said. “I think the story is much bigger.”
Nader said the protests that started in late December could be “the most anti-regime revolt since the 1979 revolution.”
“This was nationwide. It took place all over Iran,” he said. “It was really concentrated in smaller to mid-size cities because of economic conditions there and also because security forces are not present in those small cities like they are in Tehran.”
The focus on Iran’s protests could also affect Trump’s decision on whether to reimpose the sanctions Obama lifted by agreeing to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, as the nuclear deal is formally known.
Although Trump has lashed out at the regime for failing to uphold the spirit of the agreement, he has yet to void the deal completely by reviving the sanctions JCPOA lifted.
Trump has twice signed a waiver that kept the sanctions suspended, despite declaring last fall that he planned to seek major changes or an end to the deal by passing responsibility of it to Congress.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment about whether the political focus on protests would change Trump’s thinking.
Proponents of JCPOA have warned that canceling it would only accelerate Iran’s progress toward obtaining a nuclear weapon while reducing oversight of its program. Opponents of the deal have said U.S. policy toward Iran was warped by a desire to strike the agreement, which they say led the Obama administration to overlook the regime’s bad behavior.