ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
President Trump's tweet threatening Iran did not totally come out of the blue. His administration has been ramping up the rhetoric about what it calls Iran's malign behavior in the region. Administration officials also seemed to be trying to encourage Iranians to rise up against their government. What would come next is not so clear, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: For weeks now, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been tweeting about protests in Iran, sometimes overstating them. He's clearly trying to show Iranians that the Trump administration backs them. In a speech last night, he announced, for instance, that the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors is trying to help Iranians get around Internet censorship.
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MIKE POMPEO: The BBG is launching a new, 24/7 Farsi language TV channel. It will span not only television but radio, digital and social media format so that the ordinary Iranians inside of Iran and around the globe can know that America stands with them.
KELEMEN: When asked whether it's realistic that the Iranian people will be able to retake the country, the secretary had an easy answer.
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POMPEO: Of course.
KELEMEN: Retired U.S. Ambassador John Limbert has his doubts.
JOHN LIMBERT: I keep wondering who is feeding him this information. It's clear from his speech that he understands nothing about the internal dynamics of the country.
KELEMEN: Limbert, a foreign service officer who was held hostage in Iran and who - in recent years - advised the Obama administration, worries about the influence of the MEK. That's an exiled Iranian opposition group that was on the U.S. terrorism list until 2012.
LIMBERT: Their message is the place is on the verge of overthrowing the Islamic Republic, which has been a claim for the last 40 years, and that they, in particular, are the logical, democratic, pluralistic replacement. Now, if you believe that, I have some Florida real estate I could sell you.
KELEMEN: Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, has spoken at MEK events. And the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, recently retweeted one of the group's posts. The State Department, though, says no known MEK members were invited to Pompeo's speech. His message was focused on those Iranians inside the country who have been protesting what he described as a mafia-like regime. Hadi Ghaemi, who runs the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, says this year could be decisive for activists there.
HADI GHAEMI: I see a new generation of Iranians on the scene who are impatient and especially very troubled with the way they pay the price for their government's foreign and domestic policy.
KELEMEN: But Ghaemi, speaking via Skype, says the Trump administration's other policies hurt average Iranians. That includes a travel ban and the resumption of sanctions after Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal.
GHAEMI: For those of us who work and advocate for human rights in Iran, we do find it quite odd that the administration is so passionate and loud on human rights in Iran but really not in any other country.
KELEMEN: Another Iran watcher, Ariane Tabatabai of Georgetown University, also fears the rhetoric from Washington could backfire.
ARIANE TABATABAI: We have a bit of a goldilocks problem.
KELEMEN: Meaning she thinks the Obama administration did too little to support protesters since it wanted to reach a nuclear deal with Iran.
TABATABAI: President Trump on the other hand, I think, is too forceful. I think that he believes because the - his rhetoric, his hard line on North Korea paid off that it's also going to pay off with Iran. And I just don't think that that is the case.
KELEMEN: Tabatabai says this approach is empowering the Iranian hard-liners, letting them blame recent protests on U.S. efforts to promote regime change. Trump administration officials say their goal is changing the regime's behavior. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.