Since the Trump administration took the drastic step of imposing a nearly complete oil embargo on Iran, officials have been quick to highlight examples of Iran’s resulting economic distress and its impact on Iran’s foreign policy—“off the charts” inflation; appeals for donations by Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. But the outbreak of protests in mid-November, which roughly coincided with major protests in Iraq and Lebanon (where Tehran wields considerable influence), marked a new moment in the “maximum pressure” campaign, one Pompeo hinted he was angling for back when he announced the administration’s Iran strategy in May 2018. “At the end of the day, the Iranian people will get to make a choice about their leadership,” he said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation. “If they make the decision quickly, that would be wonderful. If they choose not to do so, we will stay hard at this until we achieve the outcomes that I set forward today.”
Read: Two nuclear problems, one policy: maximum pressure
Those objectives included a halt to uranium enrichment and a full withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria. Hook was himself pursuing another of those goals last week, the release of a U.S. prisoner from Iran. Trump, who has denounced the regime for its crackdown on the protesters, praised Iran as “very fair” after last weekend’s release of that prisoner, the Princeton student Xiyue Wang. “See,” Trump tweeted, “we can make a deal together!”
The Iranians may gamble that Trump, despite saying in another tweet that he supports the protesters and “always will,” meant it when he said he believed Iran wanted a deal, “and my deal is nuclear”—implying that his top issue was to keep Iran from getting the bomb, even if that meant ignoring all his administration’s other demands. If Trump does get a new agreement with Iran, will he really “always” support the opposition to the regime that gave it to him? There is precedent in the case of North Korea, where Trump has also sought a nuclear deal and where he has tweeted praise for Kim Jong Un, who leads perhaps the most abusive regime on the planet.
“I do appreciate the government’s support and statements,” Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, told me. “But the protests and the human-rights situation cannot become another football in the conflict between Iran and the U.S.”
Ghaemi’s organization, a New York–based advocacy group, has collected testimonials from people who have lost family members in the protests. One woman, Nahid Shirpisheh, went to a protest with her son west of Tehran; she told the center that she had seen people get shot there but did not know that the bullets were real. At one point, though, a group of people came toward her carrying a body. When she looked at the clothes and the shoes, she realized it was her son. “My innocent son was killed by this corrupt regime; this tyrannical, criminal, treacherous regime that deserves every bad name you can think of,” she told the center.