Pro-government demonstrators hold banners during a march in Iran's southwestern city of Ahvaz on Jan. 3, 2018, as tens of thousands gathered across Iran in a massive show of strength for the Islamic rulers after days of deadly unrest. (AFP Photo)
By Xinhua writers Zhu Dongyang, Matthew Rusling
WASHINGTON, Jan. 2 (Xinhua) -- The hawkish rhetoric of U.S. President Donald Trump and the White House on Iranian protests will further complicate the prospect of an Iran nuclear deal, U.S. experts said Tuesday.
At least eight people were killed, dozens injured and scores arrested as protests against the Iranian government's economic policies continued in major cities across the nation over the past days.
CONTINUOUS U.S. RHETORIC
Trump raised eyebrows around the world as he continued to lash out at Tehran over the last couple of days on the social media platform Twitter, accusing the Iranian government of squandering its national wealth in support of "foreign terrorism."
He also blasted the "terrible deal made with them by the (Barack) Obama Administration," referring to the hard-won nuclear deal signed by Tehran and other parties.
White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders at Tuesday's press briefing referred to Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state under the Obama administration, saying that Clinton "said that the Obama administration was too restrained of the 2009 protests and said that won't happen again."
"We agree with her because President Trump is not going to sit by silently like President Obama did," Sanders added.
Anti-government protests occurred in major Iranian cities after the June 12 presidential election in 2009, causing riots and unrest until early 2010.
When asked whether the Iranian protests will renew Trump's desire to re-impose sanctions on Iran, Sanders only said the United States will "certainly keep our options open in terms of sanctions."
"In terms of signing a waiver later in January, the President hasn't made a final decision on that, and he's going to keep all of his options on the table in that regard," she added.
According to Dan Mahaffee, senior vice president and director of policy at the non-profit Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, Iranian protests are fueled largely by economic discontent on issues such as unemployment, the value of Iranian currency, and disappointment with the government's approach to the economic situation.
Darrell West, a senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank the Brookings Institute, said that protests in Iran have grown due to public concerns about corruption and lack of economic prospects.
"The country remains mired in weak economic performance, even though many international sanctions have been lifted," West added.
In the eyes of David Pollock, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the scale of the protests, sweeping many provincial cities and towns and involving working-class Iranians, was still smaller than that in 2009.
COMPLEX FUTURE FOR NUCLEAR DEAL
Nevertheless, Trump's efforts to link the protests with the nuclear deal bodes ill, experts said.
"Separate from the economic situation for the average Iranian, much of President Trump's rhetoric has been focused on his skepticism towards the international nuclear deal with Iran and the continued Iranian support for the Syrian government," Mahaffee said.
As Pollock saw it, Trump's rhetoric reflects his strong view of Iran's government as an enemy and a source of Islamic extremism, threatening the U.S. interests in the region and beyond.
"Sanctions against Iran for terrorism and human rights abuses are still separate from the nuclear deal, and I think Congress and the White House will try to maintain that distinction," he added.
Brookings' West also noted that Trump has been very critical of Iran and feels Obama did not negotiate an effective agreement with the Iranians.
"He has threatened to rip up the agreement and continue to maintain U.S. sanctions on Iran. That would destabilize the Middle East and make it more difficult for foreign leaders to trust U.S. agreements," West said.
"If one leader rips up an agreement approved by the last one, it would be hard to maintain continuity in foreign policy," he added.
FUTURE INVOLVEMENT BY U.S. IN IRAN
However, experts predicted that the Trump administration's rhetoric against Iran would more likely be symbolic.
"The U.S. will probably limit its involvement mainly to moral support for the protestors, and mostly symbolic sanctions against particular regime criminals. We will work to bring other countries on board with this, in the UN (United Nations) and elsewhere," Pollock said.
"There may also be some efforts to offer the protestors technical help in getting around regime censorship and cyberattacks," he added.
"Given the history of past U.S. involvement in Iranian domestic politics, the best thing for the United States would be to ... do little to intervene or directly support these protests," Mahaffee said.
West had a similar opinion, saying that "Washington has to be careful how it handles the current protests."
"If it gets involved, Iranian leaders will cite that as evidence of foreign intervention and use that to strengthen their own popularity. They will claim the U.S. is behind the protests and the discontent is not a genuinely grass roots movement," he said.
Earlier this week, Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani said certain countries are waging a "proxy war" against the Islamic republic via social media and the Internet.
The United States, Britain and Saudi Arabia are behind the recent riots in Iran, he said.