Bloomberg TEHRAN/WASHINGTON (Bloomberg) — The Trump administration said it may impose new sanctions on Iran as the number of civilians arrested in spontaneous nationwide protests that began last week neared 1,000.
“We certainly keep our options open” on adding to U.S. sanctions on Iran, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday in her daily briefing.
U.S. President Donald Trump took to Twitter earlier in the day to say the “people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime.”
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told reporters there are no unilateral plans to take action against Iran but that she will be calling for an emergency session of the Security Council to discuss the crisis. She also rejected Iranian government accusations that protests have been directed by foreign powers.
“We must not be silent,” Haley said. “The people of Iran are crying out for freedom.”
Unrest in Iran began Dec. 28 with a rally against rising prices and the government’s handling of the economy, before turning into a wider protest against the political establishment.
The U.S. threat comes ahead of a congressional deadline Trump faces this month on whether to continue waiving sanctions that were frozen under the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. Trump last year declined to certify Iran’s compliance with the agreement, though Congress did not act on a provision allowing lawmakers to reimpose the nuclear-related sanctions within 60 days. Trump could also announce new sanctions unrelated to the accord. Sanders said Trump has not made a final decision on the next sanctions waiver.
Oil hovered close to a 30-month high as the unrest in Iran heightened concern about potential supply disruptions in OPEC’s third-biggest crude producer. The country pumps about 3.8 million barrels a day.
The crisis gives Trump an opportunity to pressure critics of his approach to Iran and the nuclear accord, which he has long criticized as the “worst deal ever.” And by publicly praising protesters, Trump is also separating himself from the approach President Barack Obama took to street demonstrations that followed Iranian elections in 2009. At the time, the Obama administration said too much American support for protesters would only delegitimize their cause.
Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway made that point directly on Tuesday, telling Fox News that Trump “doesn’t want to remain silent the way too many people were silent in 2009.”
Referring to sanctions that were eased as a result of the nuclear deal, Trump tweeted on Tuesday that “All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their ‘pockets.’ The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The U.S. is watching!”
Trump’s tweets on the protests have drawn both anger and ridicule from Iranians, who point to the inconsistency between his apparent support for them and his policy to bar them from getting U.S. visas. Iranian politicians are likely to use the president’s remarks to suggest that the United States and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s chief regional rival, are stoking unrest to weaken the Islamic Republic.
The protests are a rare public display of anger against a political establishment that has kept a tight grip on power since the 1979 Islamic Revolution against the pro-Western shah. The demonstrations, however, are smaller than the 2009 protests and do not pose an “existential” threat to the regime, according to Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council.