Rumors are circulating that the protests were actually engineered by hardliners in the regime who seek to push the current government into adopting even more repressive and aggressive polices. There have even suggested hard-liners wanted to use the protests to convince the government to launch a preemptive military strike, possibly against Saudi Arabia or Israel. The idea is that such a wag-the-dog tactic would distract an increasingly dissatisfied citizenry from the nation’s growing domestic woes.

All this sounds like so much conjecture. But if hardline elements did welcome the protests as a crisis “too good to waste,” they have to rue that strategy now. The protests are spinning out of control. The government had to shut down access to the Internet and amp up police oppression to levels unmatched since the “Green Revolution” of 2009.

There is no question that the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign is backing the regime further and further into a corner. The heavy sanctions and political isolation has made the regime more politically vulnerable and weakened its ability to fund proxies and build up its military.