U.S. President Donald Trump, who has been quick and forceful in his support for Iranian anti-government protests, will have a chance later this month to further step up pressure on Tehran.
In mid-January, Trump faces another series of congressionally mandated deadlines to certify whether Iran is complying with the terms of the nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers.
Many Iran watchers say Trump may use the deadlines to reimpose or enact new sanctions in an attempt to deliver a blow to Iran’s government at a moment of vulnerability.
“Trump probably feels on better footing domestically to refuse to abide by the nuclear deal under these circumstances” and could take steps to further dismantle it, predicts Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council.
Others caution that while Trump may not formally abandon the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), he could use the protests as an opportunity to further chip away at it.
In October, Trump chose to “decertify” the nuclear deal, a decision that provided a 60-day window in which it was easier for Congress to apply sanctions on Iran. Congress declined to do so.
Trump this month could decide to re-open that window. Perhaps more importantly, Trump must also decide whether to continue issuing a waiver that keeps old Iran sanctions from snapping back into place.
Reimposing those sanctions would effectively kill the nuclear agreement, which Trump has called an “embarrassment” and “one of the worst deals ever.” A middle ground could be applying new sanctions in a more limited fashion.
The White House hasn’t previewed its decision. While Trump’s top national security officials have warned against abandoning the nuclear agreement, many congressional Republicans have remained vocal in opposing it.
But Trump’s long-stated opposition to the deal, combined with his outspoken support for the ongoing Iranian protests, suggests to many observers that Trump could be seeking a new pressure point to squeeze further concessions from Tehran.
“What many Iranians are fearing is that these protests, which are stemming mostly from economic pressures, might be an inspiration for the U.S. to put extra sanctions, to put extra pressure on Iran,” says Negar Mortazavi, an Iranian-American commentator and journalist with Iran International.
At least 12 people have been killed in the nationwide protests, which began last week as a response to rising food prices but quickly morphed into sometimes violent displays of discontent with Iran’s conservative leaders.
Shortly after the protests began, Trump tweeted his support, saying the U.S. is “watching very closely for human rights violations!” and insisting it is “TIME FOR CHANGE!” in Iran.
While the protests may not “materially affect” the Trump administration’s stance on the JCPOA, they could make Washington’s European partners more open to the U.S. idea of further pressure, says James Carafano, a foreign policy specialist at the Heritage Institute.
“The administration is already working to pressure and isolate the regime. So, supporting the protests just adds more pressure,” says Carafano, who worked on the Trump transition team. “I think that what we are next likely to see is an executive order including additional sanctions and restrictions,” he added.
Parsi says the president could go one step further, saying it is “quite likely” Trump will refuse to renew the waivers.
“He is a person that likes to make snap decisions, so whatever thing that has happened to him lately is going to have a disproportionate influence on his decision,” Parsi said.
The U.S., which cut off relations with Iran’s theocratic leaders after they came to power in 1979, has imposed sanctions on Tehran for decades. Though the measures severely damaged the country’s economy, they failed to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
After the slightly more moderate government of President Hassan Rouhani came to power in 2013, Tehran agreed to scale back its nuclear program temporarily in exchange for sanctions relief.
However, U.S. critics have said the deal failed to deliver a permanent solution to the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program, and say Iran’s support for militants across the Middle East has gone unaddressed.
But Trump’s top defense officials — including National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — have all cautioned against abandoning the deal.
Trump’s decision must come soon. According to Politico, the first of the sanctions waiver deadlines will come on Jan.12.