Editorial: Don’t make promises you can’t keep in Iran, Mr. President

Iranian protesters chant slogans at a rally in Tehran, Iran on Dec. 30.
(Ebrahim Noroozi / Associated Press)

It’s entirely appropriate for President Trump to offer support for peaceful protesters in Iran and to demand that the government there respond with restraint. Despite claims by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that they were instigated by foreign “enemies,” the protests that erupted in that country last week seem to be home-grown and motivated by dissatisfaction with high prices, unemployment and a corrupt ruling elite.

Some protesters may also have objected, as Trump claimed in one of his tweets, to the fact that their wealth “is being stolen and squandered on terrorism.”

But Trump and other American politicians need to be careful not to issue calls for regime change, however veiled, that the United States is unable and unwilling to back up with military action. The president came close to making such a promise in a tweet on New Year’s Day that began with “Iran is failing at every level despite the terrible deal made with them by the Obama Administration” and ended with the exclamation “TIME FOR CHANGE!” In a similar vein, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said: “We should support the Iranian people who are willing to risk their lives.”


Such language offers Iranian dissidents false hope, just as former President George H.W. Bush raised the hopes of Iraqi Shiites and Kurds in 1991 when, near the end of the first Gulf War, he said that the Iraqi people could “take matters into their own hands, to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.” When those Iraqis rose up against Saddam, U.S. forces didn’t come to their aid. Trump’s words also make it easy for the Iranian regime to dismiss their protests as American-inspired. That doesn’t mean U.S. politicians can’t sympathize with the concerns of young, disaffected people in Iran or that the U.S. can’t penalize Iran when it believes that country has misbehaved. The U.S. already has imposed sanctions on Iran for its support for militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah and for its testing of ballistic missiles potentially capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

Finally, Trump must resist the temptation to seize on the protests in Iran as an excuse for further undermining the nuclear agreement. In October, Trump declined to certify to Congress that staying in the nuclear deal was in America’s interest even though the International Atomic Energy Agency repeatedly has said that Iran has complied with the agreement. But he didn’t say that he would reimpose the sanctions that were lifted in connection with the deal or demand that Congress do so.

At the same time, Trump warned that the agreement would be “terminated” if Congress didn’t take action to improve on the agreement — action that hasn’t been forthcoming, raising the possibility that he might reimpose sanctions this year, effectively ending the agreement.

Might the protests in Iran — and the government’s response to them — give Trump another reason for taking that extreme step? (In one of his tweets, the president mentioned “all of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave [Iran].” ) That truly would be an irresponsible reaction. The nuclear agreement wasn’t a favor to Iran; in restraining its nuclear program, it contributed to the security of the whole world. That was true before the protests and it’s still true.

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