Iran protests feel different, 'almost populism on the move,' says former NATO commander

  • The anti-government protests in Iran feel different than the 2009 uprising, with the unrest more broad-based, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander James c told CNBC.
  • Several hundred people have been arrested in cities across the country, according to officials and social media.
  • "There's real dissatisfaction in the Iranian population with the lack of growth in the economy, which they were promised," Stavridis said.

The anti-government protests in Iran feel different than the 2009 uprising, with the unrest more broad-based and occurring in more cities, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander James Stavridis told CNBC on Tuesday.

Several hundred people have been arrested in cities across the country, according to officials and social media, as police intensified their crackdown against the demonstrations that began last week.

"This one is almost populism on the move. There's real dissatisfaction in the Iranian population with the lack of growth in the economy, which they were promised," Stavridis said in an interview with "Power Lunch."

Protesters gather outside the Iranian Embassy in central London on January 2, 2018, in support of national demonstrations in Iran against the existing regime.
Ben Stansall | AFP | Getty Images
Protesters gather outside the Iranian Embassy in central London on January 2, 2018, in support of national demonstrations in Iran against the existing regime.

The protests are the boldest challenge to Iran's clerical leadership since 2009, when a disputed presidential election prompted millions to take to the country's streets to voice their anger. The reformist protests — often referred to as the "Green Movement" — were ultimately crushed by the state.

Stavridis said the unrest presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the Trump administration.

"The challenge is getting the messaging right," he said. "The opportunity would be to see the end of this ayatollah regime. Too soon to tell, but this one feels different."

So far, the Trump administration is on point, as long as the statements are on the side of the people and not about overthrowing the regime, Stavridis said.

However, what's really important is that U.S. allies get involved.

"We don't want the United States to be the lone voice here because that will create the lightening rod that could undo the beginning of this protest," Stavridis warned.

— CNBC's Sam Meredith and Reuters contributed to this report.