The regime responded with brutal and uncompromising repression. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps forces gunned down protesters, in at least one case with machine gun fire. According to Amnesty International, at least 208 people were killed in less than a week, and the real figure could be far higher. The Trump administration claims it could be more than 1,000.
The carnage was likely the result of the regime’s conviction that it needed to prove it was not vulnerable to collapse. “Iranian officials have noted . . . that the speed with which they were able to quiet the streets, regardless of the cost, should demonstrate to Washington that they are in full control,” said a report this week by the International Crisis Group. It remains to be seen whether the unrest really has been quelled — there were reports of new protests in recent days — and, if so, for how long.
But if President Trump’s objectives are, as he says, to force Iran to renegotiate the nuclear deal he scrapped and prevent further aggression against its neighbors, “maximum pressure” is not working . The Crisis Group report says it’s possible that, despite its rhetoric, the regime has been so shaken by the protests that it will look for a way to settle with the United States. If so, an avenue is open: Earlier this year, French President Emmanuel Macron appeared close to persuading Mr. Trump, if not Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to consider an accord under which Iran would resume observance of the nuclear deal’s terms and agree to renegotiate some of them in exchange for sanctions relief.
It’s at least as likely, though, that Tehran will seek to regain leverage with more external aggression, like the devastating attack it launched in September against Saudi oil facilities. In an interview late last month with the New York Times, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, said it was “very possible” that Iran would strike again to “crack the [U.S. pressure] campaign,” despite the deployment of 14,000 additional U.S. troops to the Persian Gulf in recent months.
Hard-liners in the administration, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, clearly hope that the protests are a sign that U.S. pressure will trigger revolution and regime change in Tehran. Though that might be a desirable outcome, history as well as the events of the past month suggest it remains unlikely. The administration would be wiser to use this moment of Iranian weakness to offer a path of de-escalation.