- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 4, 2018

The U.S. State Department threatened Thursday to take punitive action against Iranian officials who’ve killed anti-government protesters or engaged in violence and other aggressive tactics to crush demonstrations that swept the Mideast nation over the past week.

“We have ample authorities to hold accountable those who commit violence against protesters, contribute to censorship, or steal from the people of Iran,” department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in the most calculated statement the Trump administration has issued so far on the Iran protests.

It was not explicitly clear what the administration meant with regard to authorities to hold Iran’s government “accountable,” although Ms. Nauert was likely referring to an internal State Department debate on the prospect of targeting certain Iranian officials with new sanctions based on alleged human rights violations.

At least 21 people have been reported killed in clashes stemming from the week of unrest in Iran. Several hundred protesters have been arrested.

Ms. Nauert’s statement came just days after Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran Andrew Peek — a key Trump administration appointee at Foggy Bottom — told Voice of America that the department “will hold accountable those people or entities who are committing violence, from the top to the bottom, against the protesters.”

Mr. Peek said in the interview Monday that U.S. officials are “examining actions we can take against those individuals, like sanctions and other means.”

Ms. Nauert’s remarks Thursday, meanwhile, came just after reports that Russia was urging the United States not to meddle in Iran’s affairs.

“We warn the U.S. against attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the state news agency Tass, according to The Associated Press.

Mr. Ryabkov suggested Washington wants to use the unrest to undermine the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement that former President Barack Obama and other world leaders reached with Tehran.

The agreement saw the West dramatically ease sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran’s promise to limit its nuclear program, which the international community long believed was geared toward developing nuclear weapons in violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

The Russian deputy foreign minister said Thursday that Washington “is tempted to use the moment to raise new issues with regard to the JCPOA,” the acronym for the nuclear deal’s official name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The JCPOA restricts Iranian uranium enrichment activities for 10 years. Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday that the Trump administration wants a revised agreement lasting longer than that, AP reported.

In October, Mr. Trump declined to certify that Iran was complying with the nuclear deal. He must decide in mid-January if he wants to continue to waive energy sanctions on Iran.

In another development Thursday, Iran’s prosecutor general claimed a CIA official was the “main designer” of the protests that have shaken the country over the past week.

Prosecutor General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri’s comments, carried by the state-run IRNA news agency, said the CIA official headed an operation that had Israeli and Saudi support. More specifically, he alleged that the CIA planned to turn the protest into an “armed” insurrection by mid-February, the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, according to the AP.

The Trump administration has denied having any hand in fomenting the demonstrations and the CIA has declined to comment.

An Iranian source who spoke anonymously with The Washington Times this week said concerns are high inside Iran that an aggressive crackdown by the regime in Tehran could devolve into a Syria-style situation in which outside powers attempt to militarize the protesters.

“People are worried that if the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps comes in and starts brutalizing people like it did in 2009, there will be others in the region that say, ‘Well, we’re willing to provide arms to the protesters,’ ” the source said. “To some extent, that’s how Syria started — it was peaceful protests, then [Syrian President Bashar] Assad went in with tanks, and six months later there’s nothing left of Syria.”

However, some analysts are circumspect and say it is neither clear how much support the current protest movement has, nor how the situation will develop.

“The current uprisings in Iran have so far been relatively limited, although they have been broadly distributed throughout the country [and] have grown in scope,” according to long-time regional expert Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“They have not yet come close to the level of protests that overthrew the Shah in 1978 and forced him to leave the country in January 1979, or even to the much smaller protests against an Iranian election, which led to ‘Green Revolution’ in 2009-2010,” Mr. Cordesman wrote in an analysis circulated by the center Thursday.

“It is important for those outside Iran to understand that there are no reliable indicators as to how many people oppose the regime, why they oppose it, or how serious their opposition is,” he wrote. “It is equally hard to know how many Iranians support the regime, what aspects of it they support, and how many simply ‘go along to get along.’ “

A senior Trump administration official on Wednesday disputed the notion that the U.S. played any role in instigating the unrest in Iran, saying the United States had not expected them to occur. According to the AP, the official who spoke anonymously said the “protests were entirely spontaneously generated.”

Ms. Nauert said Thursday that the “Iranian people have been expressing their desire for dignified treatment, an end to corruption, improved transparency, and increased economic opportunities.”

“Protesters have also demanded that the regime stop diverting the nation’s wealth to fund military adventurism abroad. Unfortunately, the government continues to imprison and kill those who are brave enough to venture into the street,” she said. “It is limiting the flow of information into Iran, restricting free speech, and attempting to prevent the outside world from observing its own repression.”

The State Department spokeswoman went on to “call on the government to allow the free exchange of ideas and information.”

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the deaths to date and the arrests of at least one thousand Iranians,” she said. “To the regime’s victims, we say: You will not be forgotten.”

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