Crisis for Iran may present an opportunity for Washington

Julian Borger in Washington
Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

Donald Trump hailed footage of Tehran students refusing to walk over a US flag as “big progress”, but there is little sign his administration is prepared to offer more than verbal encouragement to what the US president called “wonderful Iranian protesters”.

Amid the furious popular backlash to the shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752, students at Shahid Beheshti University took pains to walk around the big US and Israeli flags painted on a concrete campus thoroughfare, a gesture of defiance to all-pervasive state propaganda.

The general revulsion that Iran’s rulers shot down a plane with 176 passengers and then attempted to lie to the world about it has triggered a crisis of legitimacy for the government on top of economic protests that have spread across the country since November. In another striking sign of the change in mood, a former anchor for Iranian state television said she would never return to the role, writing in an Instagram post: “Forgive me for the 13 years I told you lies.”

Related: Journalists quit Iranian state broadcaster over crash cover-up

The dramatic crisis for Tehran may present an opportunity for Washington, but it is not clear the Trump administration is ready to seize it by adapting any of its own policies.

In his triumphant tweet on Monday, Trump did not mention that Beheshti University, and by extension the students he was lionising, were subject to US sanctions as part of the US campaign of economic suffocation of the country. Or that those students or any other ordinary Iranians are prevented from visiting the US under Trump’s travel ban, a prohibition that has split many Iranian families.

A US policy of “maximum pressure” has dramatically increased the hardships of ordinary Iranians. The blanket sanctions are supposed to have loopholes for basic foodstuffs and medicines, but the threat of secondary measures against banks have made them skittish about any kind of transactions with Iran.

Maximum pressure has also contributed to the state of near-war between the US and Iran.

NBC News reported on Monday that Trump had given preliminary assent to the assassination of Revolutionary Guard general Qassem Suleimani in June last year. That followed Iran’s downing of a US drone as Tehran lashed out against the US oil embargo and sought to disrupt the flow of oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.

The assassination order, according to NBC, was urged on the president by administration hawks, secretary of state Mike Pompeo and then national security adviser, John Bolton, but Trump said he would only carry out an attack if the Iranians killed Americans. That threshold was crossed at the end of December when a US contractor was killed in a rocket attack on an Iraqi base by an Iranian-backed Shia militia.

The revelation further undermines administration claims that the killing of Suleimani in a drone strike in Baghdad was carried out to prevent imminent attacks on US embassies. The defence secretary, Mark Esper, admitted over the weekend that he had not been aware of intelligence to underpin Trump’s claims that four embassies were to be targeted, and US officials have been seeking in recent days to water down the meaning of the word “imminent”.

Trump insisted on Monday that a attack driven by Suleimani was imminent but that “it doesn’t really matter because of his horrible past”, reflecting growing suspicions that the drone strike was more about what the general had done rather than what he was planning to do, which raises questions about its legality under international law and the US constitution.

There were also questions over whether it helped or hindered the Trump administration’s objectives. The killing of an icon of the Islamic revolution initially galvanised support for the government, bringing millions of Iranians out on to the streets. But that burst of enthusiasm was extinguished by the feckless behaviour of Iranian officials over the downing of PS752, redirecting public ire at the incompetence and callousness of the system overseen by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Bolton, now out of the White House, tweeted: “The Khamenei regime has never been under more stress. Regime change is in the air.”

Most analysts pointed out that the Islamic Republic has withstood extreme stress and popular dissatisfaction before and survived, usually by stepping up its own brutality. Many also believe the most likely consequence of a fall of the current system would be some kind of military government in which the Revolutionary Guard would play a dominant role.

Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at the Century Foundation, said the best Washington could do would be to relax sanctions and the travel ban and then stay out of the way. She said: “At the risk of sounding brutal I think the best way of capitalising on that opportunity would be for the US and everybody else to butt out and let the Iranians figure out what it is that they want and how to bring about the change that they want.”

Both sides have undoubtedly been weakened in the region. Iran has lost credibility and also the services of Suleimani, who had a unique aptitude to work the complex world of rival militias in Iraq and Syria to Iran’s advantage.

The US has become an unwelcome guest in Iraq, a strategic foothold that is critical for it to fend off the threat of Islamic State and other extremist groups from a distance. It has ignored repeated Iraqi invitations to withdraw its troops, but that seems an unlikely recipe for long-term influence.

Both sides would benefit from a negotiated compromise at this point. Trump has repeatedly signalled that he would be ready for negotiations, and even in the fury that followed the Suleimani killing, Iranian officials kept the door open to talks. The barriers to such negotiations are largely domestic and political on both sides.

Dennis Ross, who served as a diplomat in the Middle East for several previous administrations, suggested that Vladimir Putin, who is looking for opportunities to expand Russian influence could seize the moment to become a mediator.

“What an irony it would be, indeed, if Trump’s attraction to Putin could offer a pathway to defusing the Iranian threat,” Ross wrote in the Washington Post.