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President Donald Trump. Photo: Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images

By the end of this week, by law, President Trump has to decide whether to waive economic sanctions against Iran. He'll also have to decide whether to certify that Iran is complying with the 2015 nuclear deal. But the antigovernment protests in Iran that the Trump administration supports are giving the administration a political conundrum.

The dilemma: Trump spent much of his first year in office threatening to pull the U.S. out of the nuclear deal, which he could do by reimposing economic sanctions against Tehran. But if he does that, foreign policy experts say, he risks shifting the spotlight away from the protests rather than encouraging them.

The effect: That would be unhelpful to U.S. geopolitical policy goals in the Middle East, Mara Karlin, a Brookings fellow who has served in national security roles for five U.S. secretaries of defense, tells Axios:

  • The "worst case scenario [is] if this somehow ends up becoming about us, then it would be both unhelpful to the protesters and unhelpful for broader national U.S. security interests."

The protests signal the most aggressive test of Iranian leadership in about a decade. Just last week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis attested to the U.S. interest in the protests and in broader change when he said the U.S. has "a big issue with the Iranian regime."

Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said he thinks the U.S. should hold back from shifting attention to the U.S., per Reuters. Corker and Sen. Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the committee, met with national security adviser H.R. McMaster about the upcoming deadline last week, Senate aides familiar with the conversation confirmed to Axios.

The backstory: Economic sanctions against Iran were first pulled back in 2015 in exchange for Iran easing up on its nuclear ambitions as part of the nuclear deal.

Where it stands: The White House and Senators are talking about rewriting the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act with some "legislative fixes," according to a Senate aide familiar with conversations between the Senate and the White House.

The law sets out the timetables by which the president must decide whether to continue waiving sanctions (every 120 days) and if Iran is in compliance with the deal (every 90 days). The aide told Axios the conversation is moving in a "positive direction."

  • Some fixes could include ending the 90 day requirement, Reuters reports.
  • Trump's national security staff still has to convince Trump to waive the sanctions by the end of this week, the aide said. By getting Trump to understand that more time is needed to iron out a compromise, the hope is that he will waive the sanctions now, per two Senate aides familiar with the conversation.
  • A spokesperson for the National Security Council wouldn't comment on the conversations about waivers, saying only that no decisions have been made and the deliberations are ongoing.
  • White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said last week that Trump had not finalized his decision on waivers yet, and a State Department official confirmed to Axios Friday that the department hasn't made any decisions, either.
  • Both Senate aides predicted Trump will decertify Iran's compliance with the deal, like he did in October. There is no evidence Iran is violating the nuclear deal.

What's at stake: Trump has to weigh his threats of pulling the U.S. out of the nuclear deal against the current political situation in Iran.

  • How the protests are changing the calculus: "There are a lot of folks in Washington in particular who are saying, 'now is the moment if you want to crack this regime like an egg'" to run with renewing sanctions, according to Richard Nephew, who worked on sanctions policy at the White House for President Obama. "It's vulnerable. The pressure from the inside is big so now it's time to complement it with pressure from the outside."
  • If the U.S. moves forward with renewing sanctions on Iranian oil, Iranian leadership could argue that the U.S. is contributing to Iran's economic problems — and the economic problems are one of the reasons the protests began in the first place. "They'll be able to say, 'yeah, we had problems before but the U.S. was never really faithfully implementing the agreement,'" Nephew said. "'And look, here's how unfaithfully they implemented the agreement, they just rejected the waivers.'"
  • But waiving the sanctions and staying in the deal could contradict statements and tweets Trump has issued regarding the nuclear deal itself, Karlin said. “The timing is inconvenient" for the administration, she said.

There are other ways the U.S. can show support for the protests: One option would be to issue sanctions targeted against human rights abuses. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin indicated last week that those sanctions are forthcoming. That move wouldn't put the Iran nuclear deal in jeopardy.

A State Department official told Axios they're looking for ways to hold entities accountable if the administration determines they're inflicting human rights abuses and restricting the free flow of information.

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