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Amid Iran Protests, Trump Faces Decision on Sanctions


U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to board Air Force One to return to Washington at the conclusion on their holiday vacation, from Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach, Florida, Jan. 1, 2018.

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.

Andrew Peek, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Iran and Iraq, told VOA further sanctions are possible against Iranian government elements that crack down on protesters.

FILE - In this photo taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, university students attend a protest inside Tehran University while a smoke grenade is thrown by anti-riot Iranian police, in Tehran, Dec. 30, 2017.
FILE - In this photo taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, university students attend a protest inside Tehran University while a smoke grenade is thrown by anti-riot Iranian police, in Tehran, Dec. 30, 2017.

"We will hold accountable those people and entities who are committing violence — from the top to the bottom — against the [Iranian protesters]," Peek said Monday.

While it is far from certain Trump will formally abandon the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), he could use the protests as further justification to 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 Foundation.

"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.

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, views it as "quite likely" that 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.

In this photo released by official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani speaks in a cabinet meeting in Tehran. Dec. 31, 2017.
In this photo released by official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani speaks in a cabinet meeting in Tehran. Dec. 31, 2017.

​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.

Mark Dubowitz, who heads the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which has close ties to the White House, says the protests are unlikely to change the president's decision on sanctions waivers.

"The protests, however, may increase the incentive for all sides to come together and find a legislative solution," he said. "The protests reinforce the administration's view that the Iranian regime is an odious, expansionist and destructive force in the Middle East."

VOA State Department Correspondent Nike Ching contributed to this report.

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