Mr. Trump’s linkage of the protests with the deal suggested he could feel compelled to reimpose sanctions against Iran when he faces the next deadline on the matter this month.
When Mr. Trump denounced, but did not rip up, the deal in October, he said that if Congress and European allies did not work together to improve its terms, “the agreement will be terminated.” But since then, Republicans in Congress have done little to propose new legislation, while the Europeans have insisted they will not revisit the agreement for now.
“He was going to be put on the spot, anyway, explaining why he was keeping the deal alive without these improvements,” said Philip H. Gordon, a senior National Security Council official in the Obama administration. “If the Iranians are killing people in the streets when it comes time for Trump to extend the sanctions waivers, it is hard to see him doing it.”
But killing the deal now, Mr. Gordon said, could enable the Iranian government to galvanize domestic support against the United States rather than face questions about why it has not been able to improve Iran’s economic conditions. “Right now, they cannot blame us or the international sanctions,” he said. “This could allow them to make the U.S. the enemy.”
Mr. Gordon and other Obama officials endorsed the Trump administration’s full-throated support for the protesters in contrast to Mr. Obama’s muted response when thousands of Iranians took to the streets in June 2009 after a rigged presidential election. Mr. Obama withheld criticism, in part, because dissidents warned them that Tehran would use that endorsement to discredit the movement.
With hindsight, some say, that was a big mistake because the protesters deserved the United States’ public backing, and the Iranian government would have labeled them foreign stooges either way. Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state, has described it as one of her greatest regrets from that period.
“For a lot of us who were in the administration, there is some regret,” said Daniel B. Shapiro, a former senior National Security Council official and ambassador to Israel. “At that moment, it would have been desirable to be more outspoken on behalf of the rights of the Iranian people.”
“It’s inspiring to see Iranian citizens going into the streets to protest a brutal and corrupt regime,” Mr. Shapiro said of the current uprising, though he cautioned that “there’s a lot we don’t know,” given the lack of leadership and traditional roots of these protests.
Mr. Shapiro, now a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said the United States should impose targeted sanctions on Iranian officials who order a violent crackdown on the protests. The administration should also redouble its efforts to push back on Iran’s military adventurism in the region.
Military commanders and Pentagon officials say they are drafting plans to counter what they call Iran’s “destabilizing” activities, like supporting Hezbollah and other militant proxy groups, supplying missile technology to Houthi rebels in Yemen, and carrying out cyberoperations.
“We’re not trying to go to war with Iran, but we are trying to hold them accountable for some of the things they’re doing, and we’re trying to roll some of that back,” Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the head of the Pentagon’s Central Command, said in a recent interview in Bahrain.
General Votel said the United States and its regional allies need to expose Iran’s activities — such as shipping weapons to proxies — and make it more difficult for them to continue unchecked.
“Iran operates in a gray zone,” General Votel said. “We have to be prepared to operate in that area, too.”
There is another, less likely, course that Mr. Trump could take to show solidarity with the Iranian people, analysts said: lift the travel ban on people from Iran who seek to visit the United States.
“Iranians took the travel ban very personally because they were the largest group most directly affected,” said Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert who is the deputy director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.
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