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Over the last six days, demonstrators in Tehran and other Iranian cities have taken to the streets to protest economic and political conditions in the country. As The Washington Post reports, “The protests have been stunning in their ferocity and geographic reach, spreading to far-flung towns and cities that are strongholds of the middle and working classes.” As the protests grow, the Iranian regime has responded with conciliatory words but also promises of a crackdown. Today, according to state television, nine people died, bringing the death toll to twenty.

  • WaPo: “The unrest began Thursday in the northern city of Mashhad over price increases and other economic woes. Iran’s economy has been battered by years of U.S. and international sanctions, which isolated the Islamic republic for its nuclear program. Many of those sanctions were lifted as part of a nuclear deal with world powers in 2015, but few Iranians have benefited from the relief.”
  • “State television said six of the latest casualties occurred during an attack on a police station in the town of Qahdarijan. The clashes were allegedly sparked by protesters who tried to steal guns from the station. An 11-year-old boy and a 20-year-old man were killed in the town of Khomeinishahr, and a member of the Revolutionary Guard was killed in the town of Najafabad, state television also reported.”
  • “On Monday, demonstrators appeared to be leaderless and their demands diffuse, ranging from better living conditions to more political freedoms and even an end to the Islamic republic. Their chants and attacks on government buildings broke taboos in a system that brooks little dissent. The demonstrations were the boldest challenge to government authority since a pro-democracy revolt in 2009.”
  • “Videos circulated online of protesters fleeing tear gas and water cannons, while others confronted police. On Monday, demonstrators again gathered in Tehran, as well as in an array of provincial cities, including Kermanshah in the west and Shiraz in central Iran, according to reports on social media. They chanted ‘Death to the dictator!’—referring to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — and called on security forces to join them. This brought a strong rebuke from the country’s judicial chief. ‘I demand all prosecutors across the country to get involved,’ said Sadegh Larijani, the Associated Press reported. Their ‘approach should be strong,’ he said. The head of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court also warned Tuesday that arrested protesters could potentially face death penalty cases when they come to trial, the AP reported.”

WHAT IT MEANS: The White House has unabashedly supported the demonstrators and used the occasion of the protests to all but call for regime change, while criticizing the Obama administration’s diplomatic overtures. Over the last two days, Trump tweeted:

  • Part of that second tweet, you’ll be surprised to learn, is technically incorrect. While the U.S. did send a plane to Iran with $400 million in cash (!) in 2016 [CNN], Obama did not “give” the Iranians money; rather, the deal released Iranian funds the U.S. had been holding as part of a $1.7 billion settlement at The Hague over an arms deal that fell apart when the Shah was toppled. In other words, it was Iranian money to begin with. The cash was transferred the same day Iran released four American prisoners and implemented the nuclear deal.
  • Still, the demonstrations have brought about a new round of scrutiny to both the nuclear deal and the Obama team’s handling of Iran generally. The White House was not outspoken about the 2009 protests—which started after a disputed presidential election—and as the administration was negotiating a deal to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, officials were generally muted toward the regime. That nuclear deal, of course, wasn’t intended to rectify human rights abuses or bring about democracy or compel Iran to end its sponsorship of Hezbollah; rather, it was narrowly crafted to end the country’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. It was, in that sense, an exercise in realpolitik.
  • During his campaign, Trump called that Iran deal the “worst” ever negotiated; last year, he declined to certify that Iran was keeping up its end of the bargain (it is), though he didn’t pull the U.S. out altogether.
  • Trump’s open support of the protesters and call for regime change are the opposite of Obama’s realpolitik, for better or worse. The Iranian regime has in turn blamed the protests on “enemies” in the West: “‘In recent days, enemies of Iran used different tools including cash, weapons, politics and intelligence services to create troubles for the Islamic Republic,’ Iran’s supreme leader was quoted as saying in a post on his official website.” [BBC]
  • As the LA Times notes, Trump’s embrace of the protesters could backfire: “Trump’s volley of tweets, hailing the protests only hours after they broke out Thursday night, contrasted with Obama’s more muted initial response to the 2009 wave of unrest known as the ‘Green Movement’ that followed the disputed reelection of hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. … Trump has shown few such qualms so far, tweeting about the protests for three days straight as Iranians took to the streets despite a heavy police presence, tear gas and scores of arrests.”
  • Of course, while Trump outwardly supports the protesters, who are risking life and limb to call for economic and political freedom, he will not allow them to seek refuge in the United States. Iranian nationals, after all, are included in Trump’s travel ban. As the Financial Tribune, an English-language publication that covers the Iranian economy, writes: “Lawmakers criticized the hypocrisy of the recent statements by US officials claiming support for the Iranian nation, saying the US cannot act one way and behave another way. ‘The United States which has imposed oppressive sanctions against Iranian people for many years cannot claim that it is supporting the Muslim Iranian nation,’ Alireza Ebrahimi told ICANA on Sunday. … Trump—who branded the ‘Iranian people’ a nation on the path of ‘bloodshed and terror’ in his maiden UN speech in Sept. 2017, and included it in its controversial travel ban—has particularly been fervent in his support for protestors.”

WHAT’S NEXT: From the LA Times: “In October, Trump declined to certify to Congress that staying in the nuclear deal was in America’s interest, a requirement under U.S. law, even though the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency has repeatedly determined that Iran is complying with its obligations under the agreement. In mid-January, Trump will have to notify Congress again—and may decide to impose new energy sanctions that could put the United States in violation of the international accord, which was approved by the U.N. Security Council. That would alienate most U.S. allies.”

Related: The Israeli right, emboldened by President Trump’s decision to relocate the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, wants to end talk of a two-state solution with the Palestinians. [NYT]