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Responding To The Protests In Iran


President Trump must soon decide once again whether to waive sanctions against Iran as part of the nuclear deal negotiated under the Obama administration. During the recent antigovernment demonstrations in Iran, the president hinted he might want to take some action. But a prominent conservative thinks action might be exactly the wrong reaction. Matt Purple, managing editor of The American Conservative, recently authored a piece - "A Light Touch On Iran." Mr. Purple joins us in the studio. Thanks so much for being with us.

MATT PURPLE: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

SIMON: What would be the right light touch, if you please?

PURPLE: I think we just need to be careful. I think President Trump has actually taken a fairly good approach so far. He ought to come out vocally and in support of the protesters, which he has. He ought to put the Iranian regime, which has been arresting some of these protesters unjustly, on notice. He's done that as well.

But what we absolutely don't want to do is slam down in a way that could empower the hardliners in the regime itself - really, the entire regime, which has subsisted so far throughout its existence by pointing at the United States and saying, see? All of our problems here in Iran - it's America's fault. It's Israel's fault, Saudi Arabia's fault and America's fault.

And already, we're seeing this line out of Tehran. We don't want to validate that narrative in any way. And I think, you know, if we were to slap down any more of the sanctions, I think it would only hurt the Iranian people. You know, it would starve them even further while, you know, allowing that narrative some oxygen. And I just think we really need to be careful here.

Our message ought to be to the Iranian people, if you want more self-determination, if you want more liberty from your government, then we stand with you. But we need to know that that's playing chess, not checkers. We need to be careful.

SIMON: Do you - let me follow up on what you said. Because do sanctions hurt the regime or many of the people who were out there demonstrating or who would be demonstrating?

PURPLE: Well, sanctions are a very popular tool in the foreign policy kit here in D.C. because it's essentially point and click, right? You put them on a country. There's no blood or no treasure costs mostly here in the United States. And you kind of forget about them. The problem with sanctions is that, according to experts, they probably fail about 85 to 90 percent of the time. Cuba is the best example of that, of course.

But in Iran, they did work in that when Obama slapped down very hard sanctions, they brought the Iranians to the table and got a dialogue going about the nuclear program. The question we have to ask is would they do any good if we slapped them back on now? And I think all they would do is show that the United States doesn't live up to its word on this nuclear deal, which Iran has been compliant with so far, according to the IAEA.

And it would just - you know, again empower the hardliners who want to say, see? America cannot be trusted. We need a so-called resistance economy, as they call it - an isolated economy there in Iran that doesn't deal with the outside world like the president Hassan Rouhani wants to. And I think it would just tarnish our image with the average Iranian, who is looking for something a little bit more than what the regime is offering right now.

SIMON: You seem to like the nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration.

PURPLE: I do - very conservative. That's not a very popular position. I think it's one of the few good things that President Obama did. And I think probably before the George W. Bush administration, if the Iranians had signaled a willingness to deal over their nuclear program, you know, before it became this partisan football, most presidents would have jumped at that opportunity, Republican or Democrat. It's in our national interest that Iran not have a nuclear program. We want them to - you know, to stop enriching uranium in that way. So I don't think it was necessarily a partisan thing. I think it was just good policy.

And we have now in Iran the toughest inspections regime that's ever been in place in any country. It seems to be working so far. I see no reason why we should abort it just because some people in the United States are playing politics.

SIMON: You also see some similarity between some of the people demonstrating in Iran and supporters of President Trump in this country.

PURPLE: Yes. So, you know, in 2009, when the Green Revolution happened, it was largely - you know, middle-class, upper-class people in Tehran, young people who were very disturbed about the election that I think we can probably say with some certainty Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole.

This time, Iran analysts are flummoxed. They have no idea where this came from. They didn't see it coming. Where was it? It's because these are not the usual people in the hip Tehran neighborhoods they were talking to. These are people who are often from more conservative areas who are economically straddled, who don't have a lot of political power - comparable, I think a little bit, to the deplorables here in the United States who elected Donald Trump.

SIMON: Matt Purple, managing editor of The American Conservative, thanks so much for being with us.

PURPLE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.