Trump's Aggressive Rhetoric On Iran, A Change From Obama, May Backfire, Experts Say

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President Donald Trump and his predecessor, Barack Obama, have taken sharply different tacks on Iran. Jack Gruber-Pool/Getty Images

President Donald Trump has been egging on Iranian protestors on Twitter, a staggering turnaround from his predecessor’s work to keep American fingerprints off of dissent in Iran—and his approach may open the door for hard-liners in Iran to crack down on demonstrators and then blame America for the repression, experts say. 

Barack Obama was much criticized by Republicans for his quiet diplomatic approach to Iran, but foreign affairs insiders say the 44th president was acting out of concern that Iran's theocratic dictatorship would cite any U.S. meddling as an excuse to tighten its grip.

It's too soon to tell if Trump's approach will bolster the fledgling push for economic and political reform in Iran or undermine it, but Iran is already sounding warning signals that it won't tolerate meddling by the U.S. commander in chief.

The U.S. had meddled “in a grotesque way in Iran's internal affairs,” Iran’s ambassador to the U.N. told U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a letter on Wednesday. Iran’s religious and political leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei himself has posted messages calling the protests “U.S. and Zionist regime’s conspiracies against Iran.”

The Iranian government has also worked to try to limit access to social media in Iran, a critical tool for protest organizers to manage demonstrations. That's a key development, say Obama loyalists, who defended his approach when Iran faced broad anti-government protests in 2009.

Obama chose to avoid public statements, asking Twitter to continue operating in Iran despite government objections so that protestors could organize. He kept quiet when protests formed, but did warn Iran’s leaders when government forces began to crack down on the demonstrators.

“He was applying the adage, when the enemy is making a mistake, don’t get in his way,” said Daniel Russel, who served under Obama as the senior director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council, paraphrasing Napoleon. “He was making sure we didn’t taint or undermine an indigenous authentic movement by giving it Western cooties.”

Obama was concerned, according to several former national security officials, that Iran’s leadership would use any more aggressive diplomacy by the U.S. as an excuse to crack down on protestors and produce anti-American propaganda.

“He didn’t want to make it easy for oppressive forces to point to us as the evil external force that was responsible for the unrest,” Russel said.

Trump has jettisoned that approach, bounding into the middle of a protest movement that took root at the end of 2016, with maximum public posturing.

“TIME FOR CHANGE!” Trump tweeted on New Year’s Day, only one of many public statements on the protests.

Trump also directly encouraged the “fight” by protestors, telling them that “the United States will be with you” in a tweet on January 3, before deleting the tweet and choosing slightly more diplomatic language.

Some experts defended Trump’s approach, saying clear support for the protestors is critical when citizens are rising up against tyranny.

“It’s very empowering for a superpower to declare solidarity with you,” said Richard Goldberg, a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who previously advised several Republican politicians.

Goldberg said that the argument that U.S. public support for the protestors could be used by the Iranian regime is “hullabaloo.”

“That’s always been a misnomer, and a misdirection, especially from the previous administration, that if you speak out publicly about what’s going on in Iran that you helping the regime’s propaganda,” he said. “We are the United States of America. We are the most powerful nation in the world, and we can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

GettyImages-899778684 A protester walks with fist raised through tear gas at the University of Tehran on December 30, 2017. STR/AFP/Getty Images

Despite the reoccurrence of protesters, there are some critical differences between 2009 and the current unrest. In 2009 the protests were focused in Tehran, concentrated in larger groups that could more easily be targeted by government forces. This time, the protestors are spread across the country in smaller pockets. And they’re less interested in U.S. help.

“I think the protesters are not listening as much to what the president is saying,” said Ariane Tabatabai, a professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University.

Tabatabai said that although protesters are generally ignoring Trump, the Iranian government, including Khamenei, has been listening closely.

“Khamenei is going to come out and say the U.S. is behind this no matter what we do, however when the President tweets out statements, it allows them to point to things in particular,” she said. “They don’t have to go to great lengths to justify the statements or the actions which they had to do in the past.”

The danger will come if Trump does not then back up his rhetoric with results.

“The last thing we should be doing is creating false and dangerous expectations,” said Robert Malley, who served Obama as White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf region. “We could embolden demonstrators who we will inevitably abandon if the regime cracks down, and we could magnify the regime's paranoia which will make a violent crackdown all the more likely.”

Malley said that there are substantial differences between 2009 and now, and that in both cases a U.S. president has limited ability to shape the impact of protests in Iran. Today's challenges mirror Trump and Obama's very different approach on Iran’s nuclear program, with Obama spending years reaching a diplomatic accord and Trump moving to back out of the deal while aggressively siding with Iran’s mortal enemy, Saudi Arabia. 

“The U.S. simply lacks the influence or leverage on Tehran that it possessed, say, in Cairo, given the billions in aid and military assistance we provided to the Mubarak regime,” he said.

GettyImages-900732280 Pro-government demonstrators hold posters of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on January 3, 2018. MOHAMMAD ALI MARIZAD/AFP/Getty Images

Trump has also rapidly escalated tensions with Iran, both by failing to certify Obama’s nuclear accord, and by including Iranian citizens in his travel ban.

Those decisions have been paired with a push by the State Department to promote democracy, Goldberg said, citing administration interest in restarting the Iran Democracy Fund, a program championed by President George W. Bush and halted by Obama. That fund spent, at times, tens of millions of dollars to create and transmit pro-democracy television and radio programing into Iran.

The combination of moves by the Trump administration has made his messages to protesters unlikely to be well received, Malley said.

“The messenger in this case is about as bad a messenger as one can imagine,” he said. “It's telling that, unlike in 2009, you’re not seeing protestors clamoring for U.S. support or help. They had expectations for Obama. They apparently have none for Trump.”