(Update: Adds reaction from Twitter on Iranian leaders' use of the platform.)
(CNSNews.com) – Amid reports of a rising death toll in protests across Iran, the regime’s foreign ministry on Sunday criticized Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for voicing support for the protestors, accusing the administration of responsibility for the “economic terrorism” causing suffering to the Iranian people in the first place.
The U.S. argues that the plight faced by ordinary Iranians is the result of a corrupt regime that enriches itself and funds proxies and fuels instability across the region.
The White House said Sunday the U.S. “supports the Iranian people in their peaceful protests against the regime that is supposed to lead them.”
“We condemn the lethal force and severe communications restrictions used against demonstrators,” press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement.
“Tehran has fanatically pursued nuclear weapons and missile programs, and supported terrorism, turning a proud nation into another cautionary tale of what happens when a ruling class abandons its people and embarks on a crusade for personal power and riches.”
Iranian opposition sources claim more than 25 people have been killed since the latest wave of protests began on Friday. Iranian media outlets report at least 1,000 detentions. Figures have not been independently confirmed.
Sparked by President Hassan Rouhani’s announcement of a massive fuel price hike coupled with rationing, the protests have taken on a broader anti-regime tone.
Video clips posted on social media show demonstrators chanting slogans against Rouhani, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and regime policies across the region – including references to its interference in Syria and support for Palestinian terrorist groups.
Billboards featuring images of Khamenei and Rouhani have been set ablaze or defaced, along with buildings and vehicles associated with the regime, including branches of state-owned banks.
In some cities, protesters have stopped vehicles on thoroughfares and walked away, bringing traffic to a standstill.
The regime’s response has included targeting organizers’ communications by cutting off Internet access and disabling the country’s largest cellphone networks.
“I think that this is one of the most important stories around the world that’s happening this weekend,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told Fox News.
When Iran secured sanctions relief from the U.S. and its allies as a result of the 2015 nuclear deal, she said, “we never saw that money going to the Iranian people.”
‘The billions of dollars in sanctions relief weren’t used for new roads, new hospitals, new schools,” Ortagus added. “Instead that money was used to fund Iran’s terrorist proxies throughout the Middle East.”
After Pompeo earlier tweeted his support for the protesters, regime foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said Iranians were well aware “that such hypocrite statements are completely void of sincere sympathy.”
Mousavi said it was strange seeing expressions of sympathy from “the same person who has already said that the Iranian people should be starved to surrender.”
(Tehran has for months been accusing Pompeo of wanting to “starve” Iranians, citing his comment a year ago that “the Iranian leadership has to make a decision that they want their people to eat.”
Pompeo had been making the point that the regime had to decide if it wants to use humanitarian exemptions to U.S. sanctions to import food and medicine, or continue to expend its resources funding “death and destruction” across the region.)
The National Iranian American Council (NIAC), which advocates engagement with the regime, criticized its use of force against protestors, but also took the opportunity to call for an end to U.S. sanctions, which it said were emboldening “hardline elements.”
‘Do good. Stand with the people’
Netblocks, a civil society digital rights group, recorded a near-total Internet shutdown in Iran instituted at the weekend, with national connectivity at about five percent of normal levels.
“We have the technical ability to turn the internet on for the people of Iran. And ensure it is free of government blockers,” tweeted Richard Grenell, U.S. ambassador to Germany and an outspoken critic of the Iranian regime. “Europe and America should do it together.”
Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies challenged Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to shut down Iranian regime officials’ accounts: “Do good. Stand with the people.”
Even when the Internet is operating normally Iranians can only access Twitter via virtual private networks. Meanwhile Khamenei has Twitter feeds in six languages, with a combined 830,000 followers; Rouhani has more than 1.5 million followers of his English and Farsi accounts; Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s English feed has 1.3 million followers.
Approached for comment, a Twitter spokesperson pointed to a recent statement on the platform’s policy on world leaders’ accounts and content, which says “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.”
The rules are enforced for any user in certain cases, including promotion of terrorism or child sexual exploitation, or threats of violence against individuals, Twitter says.
From outside Iran, exiled opposition voices have been expressing support for the protests.
Reza Pahlavi, the exiled son of the late shah, posted message on social media expressing solidarity with the protestors, describing the regime as a “criminal and corrupt cult,” and voicing confidence that the Iranian people would “end this nightmare with your own power and usher in a bright morning of freedom and prosperity.”
According to the exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI)/Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK), protests have spread to dozens of cities, with particular flashpoints including Tehran – and especially the capital’s suburb of Shahriar, where it says at least 14 deaths were reported – as well as Shiraz, Khorramshahr, and Ahvaz.
“Security forces attempted to quell the protests with teargas and water cannons but young people throwing rocks and setting bonfires to fend off the gas and block the advance of suppressive forces fought them off,” the organization’s secretariat said in a statement issued in Paris.
“[T]he ground is shaking under the feet of the mullahs and IRGC thugs from Beirut to Baghdad, and now in Tehran and all over Iran,” an MEK spokesman said in a statement, referring to recent protests in the two Arab countries where Iranian influence runs deep.