Sanctions May Have Fueled Iran Protests, but Have Yet to Further U.S. Goals

The key question is whether economic conditions deteriorate. Mr. Hook noted in an interview on Monday that as the country cuts back further on subsidies, there will be more protests of the kind spurred by the 50 percent surge in gasoline prices. “The regime is running out of money after wasting billions on proxy wars and graft,” Mr. Hook said. “We expect to see additional subsidy cuts and rationing.”

Even if that proves right, Ayatollah Khamenei may in fact be betting that he can wait things out until the American elections, hoping that any Democrat who may be elected would restore the 2015 agreement. It is an uncertain bet — few have made that commitment, and it is almost unimaginable that any future American president would re-enter the agreement without getting something from Iran in return.

In many ways, the decisions the administration finds itself confronting now are similar to the ones the Obama administration confronted in 2009 amid the outbreak of the so-called Green Revolution. It was the first uprising of Mr. Obama’s presidency, less than five months after his inauguration, and he reacted with a caution that many of his aides later regretted, declining to speak out in favor of the protesters for fear that it would play into the hands of the Iranian government.

Mr. Pompeo took a swipe at that approach on Monday.

“This administration has taken a completely opposite view of the important political protests, the freedom-seeking, the freedom-loving people of Iran, than President Obama and his administration did,” he said.

He went on to trumpet the somewhat vague effort to put technology into the hands of the Iranian people to allow them to communicate — and slip out images of the carnage as Iranian forces opened up on protesters in places like Mahshahr, a city of 120,000 people where the Revolutionary Guards crushed protesters on Nov. 18, killing as many as 100.

“After the 2017-18 protests in Iran, we accelerated efforts to enable Iranians to communicate with each other and with the outside world,” Mr. Hook said on Monday. Over the past few weeks, he said, “tens of thousands of Iranians used circumvention tools facilitated by the U.S. and our partners, even during the shutdown.”

But both the State Department and American intelligence officials were surprised that the Iranian government took the extraordinary step of shutting down the entire domestic internet infrastructure, even if only for a few days. Taking such an extreme step may have been part of an effort to undercut the use of those American-provided tools, which encrypt communications and give alternate pathways to transmit messages. But no one envisioned a total network shutdown.