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Iran’s protests reinforce the case for keeping the nuclear deal

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Today, President Trump is expected to yield to pressure, both from within his administration and from allies abroad, to once more extend sanctions relief to Iran as part of the nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic. The White House will announce its move following a meeting between Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.

Trump, who detests the pact forged between Iran and world powers in 2015, “decertified” the deal in October. But he left open the question of whether the United States would reimpose sanctions on Iran that were lifted after Tehran agreed to curbs on its nuclear program. (If it did, experts fear, Iran could then declare the agreement null and void and resume nuclear activities that have raised proliferation concerns.) According to reports, administration officials have suggested that, even if Trump does extend the waivers, he might seek new measures over other issues such as human rights and Tehran’s missile program.

The deliberations follow a turbulent few weeks in Iran. Economic protests that broke out at the end of December rocked some 80 cities and led to the arrest of thousands of Iranians — and at least 22 reported deaths, including of a number of people detained in prison. The uprising has largely dwindled, but it served as the most dramatic jolt to the government in Tehran since the brutally quashed 2009 Green Movement protests, which followed a presidential election widely believed to have been rigged.

The unrest also jolted the political ecosystem in Washington, where Iran policy remains a volatile flash point for the capital's wonks. Trump, as well as Washington's neoconservative establishment, sees little worth in the years of slow-moving diplomacy that led to the landmark accord, which they believe did nothing to curb Iran's provocative behavior in the region. They reject most analyses that attempt to parse political divisions within the Islamic Republic, instead seeing an opaque theocratic dictatorship impervious to internal change. The protests presented them with a perfect opportunity to grandstand.

“We stand with the proud people of Iran because it is right, and because the regime in Tehran threatens the peace and security of the world,” Vice President Pence wrote in a column for The Washington Post, directly calling out Obama for not doing the same in 2009. “That is the essence of American leadership, and as the people of Iran now know, the United States is leading on the world stage for freedom once again.”

But the only thing this rhetoric tangibly achieved last week was to give Iran's leadership an excuse to pin the unrest on outside actors, chiefly the United States. The protests, which failed to take root in the capital, were not going to topple the regime. Nor was the United States, even with Iran hawks in power, going to take the extreme actions necessary to help sustain the uprising.

“The U.S. policy of speaking loudly and carrying a little stick isn’t all that effective, and is mostly a political tool to bludgeon policies that one disagrees with back home,” wrote Aaron Stein of the Atlantic Council. “The debates about the 'people in Iran' aren’t really about the people in Iran, but about how to use those people to achieve a desired American end-goal, without thinking through an actual policy for what that end-goal would look like and that end-goal’s broader consequences for the United States.”

But it's worth considering some of the lessons offered by the Iranian people. According to some reports, the first demonstrations were actually stoked by hard-line forces within the regime opposed to President Hassan Rouhani, who pushed for the nuclear deal that the hard-liners also despise. But the protests took on a life of their own, fueled by long-simmering frustrations over the feeble state of the country's economy and the kleptocratic nature of the regime.

They tapped into anger over the fact that the bulk of the Iranian people have yet to see the economic dividends of Rouhani's attempted reforms. They cast a light on popular discontent with Iran's activist foreign policy in the Middle East, where the government has spent blood and treasure fighting a grueling proxy war in Syria. And they demonstrated the fragility likely felt by Iran's political elites, who are themselves divided into increasingly feuding camps.

The complexity of Iran's internal dynamics ought to inform Trump's calculus. Both Rouhani, the face of Iran's diplomatic outreach to the West, and the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have stated that the demonstrators' demands should be understood and heeded. But the White House could give Tehran the oxygen it needs to distract from popular demands.

“Voiding the deal by reapplying sanctions now, however, would not be a solution. Instead, it would split the United States from its partners in the accord — the European Union, Russia and China — and give Iran an opening to resume nuclear activity immediately,” wrote The Post in an editorial. “It would also distract from the grievances being raised by Iranian protesters by providing the regime with an external threat, an excuse for further economic failures.”

That's an argument being desperately echoed by both many Iranian observers, as well as European officials.

“Trump has a chance here to make a statesman-like decision: Stick with the deal, which is working. Allow young Iranians the chance to better themselves through the implementation of the [Iran deal]," wrote Peter Westmacott, who served as Britain's ambassador to the United States around the time the pact was negotiated. “And avoid America being blamed for precipitating an unnecessary further crisis in the Middle East.... The Middle East has enough problems. America shouldn’t create more of them.

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