WASHINGTON - The United States is promising support for protesters in Iran, condemning Iranian officials for a crackdown that has left 21 people dead and more than 1,000 others under arrest.
A White House official Thursday said the U.S. would look for "actionable information" and seek to impose new sanctions against those responsible for stifling protests that began just last week.
The State Department also said it would not stand by idly.
"We have ample authorities to hold accountable those who commit violence against protesters, contribute to censorship, or steal from the people of Iran," it said in a statement. "To the regime’s victims, we say: You will not be forgotten."
New U.S. sanctions
Though not tied directly the protests, the U.S. Thursday sanctioned five Iranian companies linked to Tehran's ballistic missile program.
"These sanctions target key entities involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program, which the Iranian regime prioritizes over the economic well-being of the Iranian people," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.
"As the Iranian people suffer, their government and the IRGC fund foreign militants, terrorist groups and human rights abuses," Mnuchin added.
And at the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley has requested an emergency U.N. meeting Friday on the situation.
But Russia and other members of the U.N. Security Council are criticizing the U.S. call for a meeting, saying the protests are a domestic issue and do not involve threats to international peace and security.
However, Haley said in a statement late Thursday “The world has witnessed the horrors that have taken place in Syria, that began with a murderous regime denying its people’s right to peacefully protest. We must not let that happen in Iran.”
Haley added, “It will be telling if any country tries to deny the Security Council from even having this discussion, just as the Iranian regime tries to deny its own people the ability to have their voices heard.”
The U.S. statements and sanctions are unlikely to sit well with Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who have blamed foreign governments for instigating the protests.
The protests, which seemed to erupt spontaneously last week, have spread to many of Iran’s smaller cities, towns and rural areas, with protesters focused on economic hardships and government corruption.
Iranian public’s discontent
But Iranian officials Thursday insisted the wave of anti-government protests had waned.
General Abdolrahim Mousavin, the head of the army, thanked security forces for "putting out the fire of sedition."
"This blind sedition was so small that a portion of the police force was able to nip it in the bud," Mousavin was quoted as saying in state-run media.
Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said only 42,000 people had taken part in the protests. And an official with the country’s elite Revolutionary Guards force said the number of "troublemakers" was less than 15,000.
Instead, state television Thursday showed huge crowds marching in support of Iranian leaders in several major cities, including Isfahan, Ardebil and Mashhad, where the protests started.
Still, U.S. intelligence officials warn Tehran is at a crossroads, noting the protests are the biggest outpouring of public discontent since Iranians took to the streets in 2009 following a disputed presidential election.
"The protests are symptomatic of long-standing grievances that have been left to fester," an intelligence official told VOA on condition of anonymity. "Will it address the legitimate concerns of its people or suppress the voices of its own populace?"
"What is clear is that these concerns are not going away," the official said.
Critics of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani say he has abandoned the poor, pointing to rising prices for key commodities like fuel, bread and eggs.
And even Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, told the semi-official ISNA news agency, "The people’s main demand now is for the government and officials to deal with the economic problems."
Growing U.S. pressure on Iran?
In the meantime, Iran could face additional economic pressure from Washington.
U.S. President Donald Trump is set to decide next week whether to continue to waive sanctions against Iran that were suspended under the 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear weapons development. Trump has repeatedly attacked the agreement and assailed Tehran’s military actions in Syria, Iran and Yemen.
But some analysts warn the administration runs a risk of taking too harsh a line on Iran and seeing it backfire.
"There’s really no reason for us to not waive the nuclear sanctions now," said Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Military and Security Studies program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"Don't pull out of JCPOA [nuclear deal] because that will redirect the attention of the Iranian people from the regime’s inability to solve their financial problems to us," Eisenstadt said. "We shouldn’t make the United States the issue here."
Margaret Besheer at the United Nations contributed to this report