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In our opinion: Trump's sanctions may be the nudge Iran needs to reform

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the protests that recently spread across Iran is that people apparently do not blame the United States for their nation’s economic troubles.

Videos on social media show crowds chanting, “Death to inflation!” and “Death to unemployment!” The wording appears to be a deliberate mocking of the familiar “Death to America!” chanted by protesters nearly 40 years ago as they ushered in the current regime of ruling clerics.

Elsewhere, people were heard chanting, “Authorities lie when they say it is America.”

Iran’s unrest clearly is more than the run-of-the-mill anti-Western movement that has characterized the country since the fall of the Shah. The Iranian people seem to be tiring of the ruling regime.

That alone provides a rare ray of hope.

President Trump’s decision in May to withdraw the United States from a multilateral nuclear deal and to reinstate economic sanctions may be just the nudge needed to force a tipping point. Those sanctions take effect Tuesday.

Either they will intensify public unrest to a point that the regime is overthrown, or they may force the nation’s leaders to capitulate to some of the administration’s demands.

Critics who say American sanctions alone would do little might have a point under calmer circumstances. But Iran’s economy already is contracting, and the rial is rapidly losing power against the dollar. A bird flu epidemic has exacerbated inflation in the food sector. U.S. allies in Asia have been cutting back on Iranian oil purchases under pressure from the administration.

The grass-roots protest movement, apparently leaderless and consisting mainly of people in the middle- and lower-income strata, has been brewing for months in Iran.

This started independent of the nuclear deal with the West.

The U.S. sanctions affect the sale of precious metals, such as gold and other rare metals, as well as steel and aluminum. They ban investments in Iran’s sovereign debt and affect the automobile trade. Iranian carpets and food cannot be imported into the United States.

In November, tougher sanctions are scheduled to take effect, covering the sale of Iranian crude oil and any transactions with the nation’s central bank.

Of all the Trump administration’s foreign policy decisions so far, this one may hold the most promise.

The administration has faced tough criticism from its allies for scuttling the nuclear deal, but that deal was badly flawed. It failed to confront Iran’s aid to belligerent and terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah, and it did not address Iran’s stated intent to destroy Israel.

Rather than eliminating Iran’s nuclear ambitions entirely, it merely postponed them. This flaw became clear when the regime threatened to immediately resume its nuclear program after the United States abandoned the agreement.

Iran has issued more threats in the wake of new sanctions, including that it would disrupt oil exports to the U.S. from other countries, and perhaps close the Strait of Hormuz.

But it’s unlikely the regime will follow through on any of these, especially with the problems it faces at home.

Still, the Trump administration must take care. A leaderless protest movement could devolve into chaos and anarchy if it succeeds. Unless the Trump administration can identify and support leaders who want to establish a democratic government, without actually getting involved, forcing the existing regime to change seems the best option.

The U.S. needs to apply diplomatic finesse, support for Iranian self-determination and solid long-term planning. Without this, protesters in Iran could easily return to their familiar anti-American chants.