US vows support for Iranian protesters, weighs options against regime
Washington - The United States said it fully supports the anti-government protests in Iran but analysts said that, despite the fiery rhetoric, options for Washington to do anything on the ground are limited.
US President Donald Trump heads an administration in which hardliners are pushing for strong measures against Iran and for an end of the nuclear deal with a country seen by Washington as an aggressor in the Middle East and a security threat to the United States and its allies. Looming deadlines in mid-January mean a decision by Trump about the fate of the nuclear agreement is imminent.
Following the start of the current unrest in Iran, Trump denounced the Iranian regime and praised the protesters. In a series of tweets that started December 30, Trump said the “people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime.” Iranians “are hungry for food & for freedom. Along with human rights, the wealth of Iran is being looted. TIME FOR CHANGE!” He promised “great support from the United States at the appropriate time!”
The call for regime change in Tehran was unusual for a president who has said many times that the United States no longer pursues a policy of nation-building in faraway places. Iran said the unrest was due to meddling from outside forces but there is no evidence the United States was involved.
Senior officials said the administration is considering ways to help anti-government groups in Iran. Writing January 4 in the Washington Post, US Vice-President Mike Pence criticised Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, for failing to support change in Iran during the 2009 Green Revolution there.
“Where his predecessor stayed silent in 2009, Trump swiftly offered the Iranian people America’s unwavering support,” Pence wrote. “He has also committed to providing assistance in the days ahead.”
Pointing to US sanctions against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps introduced last year, Pence stressed that “the president is weighing additional options to punish the regime for its belligerent behaviour and assault on its own citizens.”
The UN Security Council scheduled a meeting after US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley pushed for action against Iran. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin imposed new sanctions against Iranian companies connected to the country’s missile programme and promised the United States would “continue to decisively counter the Iranian regime’s malign activity, including additional sanctions targeting human rights abuses.”
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement on January 4 that the United States had “ample authorities to hold accountable those who commit violence against protesters, contribute to censorship or steal from the people of Iran. To the regime’s victims, we say: You will not be forgotten.”
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a State Department official told The Arab Weekly the Treasury Department had a range of “sanctions authorities” but declined to give details. “There is a lot of different things that are possible,” the official said.
It is unclear what the United States can accomplish in Iran. “I am not sure whether Trump or Haley can do much to shape things,” said Allen Keiswetter, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs who is a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
Any action by Haley at the United Nations faced vetoes by Russia and China, Keiswetter said, adding that he suspected domestic as well as foreign policy motives behind the tough rhetoric coming from Washington. “Trump is playing to his base,” he said.
US efforts for regime change in Iran go back to the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in a 1953 coup orchestrated by British and American intelligence services. Analysts say, however, today’s US influence on events in Iran is very limited.
“I think Trump would like to see regime change in Tehran,” Gary Samore, executive director for research at Harvard’s Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government, said via e-mail, “but he’s not likely to do anything about it except talk and tweet.”
One area that offers Trump the chance to do something concrete and dramatic is the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Last October, the president gave Congress three months to draw up additional sanctions that would be triggered if Iran violated criteria set by Washington but lawmakers have taken no action.
US law requires the president to certify every three months whether Iran complies with the JCPOA. Trump refused to do so in October and said he might pull the United States out of the nuclear deal.
Under legal deadlines starting on January 11, Trump will have to decide about certification and about a possible reintroduction of unilateral US sanctions against Tehran that were suspended when JCPOA went into effect. The return of sanctions could prompt the Iranians to cancel JCPOA. America’s allies in Europe and several Trump aides say the deal should be saved.
The Iranian unrest could convince Trump that JCPOA should be scrapped, media reports said. Politico quoted an unnamed senior administration official as saying that a decision to leave the sanctions suspended “sends a horrible message,” given the unrest in Iran. However, aides would supply Trump with an option to leave JCPOA intact, the official said.
Samore said the president might conclude that the reintroduction of sanctions could lead to the regime change he is after. “Trump might decide to re-impose US sanctions on the grounds that the regime is wobbly and needs one final push to knock it over,” he wrote. “The danger is that this approach might backfire and rally domestic support for the regime.”