(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the weekend denied that the U.S. pressure campaign on Iran was responsible for the economic grievances that sparked the current wave of protests, saying regime policies predating the restoration of sanctions were to blame.
He cited the regime’s support for proxies across the region, involvement in foreign military campaigns, and corruption at home.
A week of protests, met by a regime crackdown, has left more than 100 people dead, according to Amnesty International, while the exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) put the figure at over 300, and has published 99 names to date. Both say the actual figure is likely higher.
Officials have confirmed only 12 deaths during the protests. Iran’s mission to the U.N. said any non-official figures were “speculative and unreliable, and in many cases part of a disinformation campaign.”
A near-total Internet shutdown eased over the weekend, although connectivity is still not back to normal, according to NetBlocks, a civil society digital rights group.
Iranian officials accuse foreign enemies, including the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as dissident groups like the NCRI of fomenting the unrest, which they say has now been brought under control.
The regime says the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has arrested around 150 ringleaders, and that at least 34 member of the NCRI-affiliated Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK) were being held.
Earlier, officials said the total number of protestors detained was above 1,000. The Center for Human Rights in Iran says the actual number of detentions could be as high as 4,000, while the NCRI said the number had risen above 10,000.
The protests began after President Hassan Rouhani on Nov. 15 announced a steep fuel price increase and rationing. They spread to cities and towns across the country, and in some locations vehicles and buildings associated with the regime were damaged or torched.
In pro-regime rallies at the weekend, demonstrators’ chants included “Death to America,” “Death to Israel” and “death to the rioters.”
In an interview with Iran International, a London-based news network, Pompeo was asked about the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, which saw sanctions, that had been eased under the 2015 nuclear deal, restored and tightened after President Trump withdrew from that agreement in mid-2018.
“Were you expecting this to happen?” interviewer Arash Aalaei asked of the protests.
“You have to remember that the reason for the challenges to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s economy aren’t the American sanctions,” Pompeo replied. “This long predates any of that. This is massive mismanagement of the Iranian economy.”
Pompeo pointed to Iran’s involvement in conflicts across the region, and its funding of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shi’ite militias in Iraq.
“If those monies were put towards better roads, better infrastructure to help the Iranian people, these protests, I think, would calm down immediately,” he said.
Pompeo voiced the hope the regime make undertake those kinds of reform, but added that “there’s no indication that they have any intention of doing so.”
He also accused regime officials of enriching themselves at the expense of the Iranian people.
“They haven’t allowed the economy to grow; they haven’t created opportunity. Instead, they’ve behaved like kleptocrats, stealing the wealth of the Iranian people for their own personal enrichment.”
Pompeo rejected the accusations that the U.S. was stoking the protests.
“The last refuge of those who fail is to blame someone else,” he said. “This has nothing to do with anyone outside of Iran fomenting these protests.”
Targeting those targeting the Internet
Amid the Internet blockages late last week the State Department encouraged Iranians to send images and information about the regime’s crackdown – both to identify the perpetrators and enable the U.S. to sanction them.
The Treasury Department then announced sanctions on Iran’s communications minister, for Internet censorship.
Pompeo on Friday again spoke out against the fact Iranian leaders have social media accounts while they prevent their people from doing so. Iranians can only access Twitter and Facebook via a virtual private network.
“While Iranian regime leaders maintain access to the Internet and social media accounts for themselves and their cronies, they deprive their people of these basic tools of expression and communication,” he said.
Pompeo said no country or company should enable the regime’s hypocritical conduct.
“It’s just wrong,” he said in the interview, in reference to Iranian leaders’ access to Twitter and Facebook.
The same people who are violating human rights and destroying Iran’s economy, he said, “have the ability to speak to the world and between each other.”
“And the good, hard-working Iranian people have been denied that.”
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has Twitter accounts in at least six languages (Farsi, Arabic, English, French, Spanish and Urdu), with a combined following of more than 800,000. Rouhani’s English and Farsi accounts have more than 1.5 million followers combined, and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s English account has 1.3 million followers.
Asked about those officials’ connectivity while the regime clamps down on others’ access, a Twitter spokesperson noted a recent general policy statement which deals with the content of leaders’ accounts – rather than the fact they have them in the first place.
Twitter says it enforces its rules, in the case of any user, when for instance a person promotes terrorism or threatens violence against individuals.
However, “comments on political issues of the day, or foreign policy saber-rattling on economic or military issues are generally not in violation of the Twitter Rules.”
Last April Instagram shut down the accounts of senior IRGC officials, shortly after the Trump administration declared the IRGC a foreign terrorist organization.