- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 5, 2019

More than 1,000 Iranian protesters may have been “murdered” in recent weeks by the country’s internal security services, top Trump administration officials said Thursday, while the Pentagon skirted questions about plans to send thousands of additional U.S. troops to the region to contain Iran in the region.

State Department Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook said in a Thursday briefing that not only had Iranian security forces engaged in mass killings of demonstrators but also may have raped and tortured some protesters who had been arrested. The death total was much higher than recent estimates by human rights groups and Mr. Hook did not offer specific evidence for the higher toll.

“As the truth is trickling out of Iran, it appears the regime could have murdered over 1,000 Iranian citizens since the protests began,” Mr. Hook told reporters. “We cannot be certain, because the regime blocks information. Among those murdered are at least a dozen children, including 13- and 14-year-olds.”

The protests, the most violent since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, began Nov. 15 after the Iranian government announced a 300% increase in heavily subsidized fuel prices. The demonstrations quickly snowballed into a much broader anti-regime movement in cities across the country.

The administration’s assertions about the violence inside Iran mirror those made by the The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an Iranian dissident group, which is viewed with skepticism by some but has a history of revealing valuable intelligence from inside Iran and has positive relations with the Trump administration.

An MEK activist who just days before was in Iran spoke to The Washington Times on Thursday on the situation there.

The activist, who wished to be identified only as “Borhan,” a 56-year-old businessman who has twice been arrested by Iranian authorities, said public anger with the regime has reached new heights.

“The people are on the end road with this regime because of poverty and unemployment and corruption and many things. People came out in the streets and people don’t have anything to lose,” Borhan said in an interview conducted through a translator. He said the regime is demanding that when a protester is shot, the family must pay for the bullets. Iranian authorities also reportedly have refused to hand over bodies until families agreed not to hold public funerals.

“The regime gave the corpse under one condition: The families … shouldn’t have any ceremony for them,” Borhan said.

The uprising in Iran has come against a backdrop of dramatic economic sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. That “maximum pressure campaign” has gained steam since President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 international nuclear accord with Iran last year.

The U.S. also has sent more troops and military equipment to the Middle East following Iran’s string of attacks on commercial oil ships over the summer, its downing of an American drone, an attack on Saudi oil facilities for which the U.S. has blamed Iran, and other provocations.

But the Pentagon on Thursday pushed back on a Wall Street Journal report that the administration is preparing to send up to 14,000 more U.S. troops to the Middle East — even as President Trump talks of winding down American troop engagements abroad. While top Defense Department officials quickly shot down the 14,000 top-line figure, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood acknowledged U.S. military leaders are watching the region closely.

“We’re always considering changes to our force posture,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.

Pressed by Republican Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Mr. Rood seemed to whisper to his colleague that it’s “not 14,000” troops that are being deployed, implying that ground troops are being deployed but the specific number is in dispute.

The Pentagon issued another statement later in the day after Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper spokes with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican.

Mr. Esper “reaffirmed that we are not considering sending 14,000 additional troops to the Middle East at this time,” Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said in a statement.

Lauren Meier contributed to this report.

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