The United States said Thursday that Iranian authorities may have killed more than 1,000 people in a crackdown on demonstrations, which Washington cast as the clerical regime’s worst-ever internal challenge.
The damning account came as the US put new pressure on Iran by not ruling out sending more forces to the region.
“It appears the regime could have murdered over 1,000 Iranian citizens since the protests began,” Brian Hook, the US point man on Iran, told reporters.
He acknowledged that information was difficult to verify in Iran, which has severely curtailed the internet, but said: “We know for certain it is many, many hundreds.”
Hook said that “many thousands” of Iranians have been wounded and that at least 7,000 protesters have been detained.
US President Donald Trump, receiving UN diplomats at the White House, called the crackdown “brutal” and a “horrible situation” as he vowed to respond “strongly” to any threat from Iran to US interests.
Protests broke out on November 15 in Iran, whose economy has suffered under sweeping sanctions by the United States, after the government abruptly hiked fuel prices.
Hook said that the ensuing crackdown showed the regime has had to rely on brute force and was losing support even with its traditional working-class base.
“This is the worst political crisis the regime has faced in its 40 years,” Hook said.
The death toll is sharply higher than the figure of 208 dead given by Amnesty International, which said it was cautious because of the difficulties in verifying information.
Iran has dismissed the high death counts as “utter lies” and confirmed only five dead – four security force personnel killed by “rioters” and one civilian.
But in a softening of stance that indicates a need to address grievances, Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that people killed in the violence would be considered “martyrs” as long as they did not foment the unrest.
Hook said the US was basing its count in part on photos and videos sent by 32,000 people after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo invited Iranians to defy internet restrictions.
Hook said that videos sent from Mahshahr, a southwestern city home to many from Iran’s Arab minority, showed the elite Revolutionary Guards chasing protesters into marshlands with machine guns mounted on trucks.
“They then spray the protesters with bullets. Between the rounds of machine gun fire, the screams of the victims can be heard,” Hook said, charging that as many as 100 people were killed there alone.
Hook demanded the release of prisoners and further diplomatic isolation of Iran, while a senior Pentagon official did not rule out sending more forces to the region to counter Iran’s role.
“We’re continuing to look at that threat picture and have the ability to dynamically adjust our force posture,” John Rood, the Pentagon’s policy chief, told a Senate hearing.
But Rood denied a report by The Wall Street Journal that Trump was considering sending another 14,000 troops to the region – equal to the number already deployed over the past six months as tensions with Iran have risen.
Trump, who has close ties with Saudi Arabia and Israel, has tried to block all Iranian oil exports after withdrawing the US last year from an Iranian denuclearisation deal, vowing to reduce Iran’s influence in the Middle East.
Hook said that a US warship on November 25 seized a major shipment of Iranian-made weapons bound for Yemen’s Houthi rebels – including anti-tank and air-defence missiles.
In a joint letter to the United Nations, the governments of Britain, France and Germany, which still back the nuclear deal, also accused Iran of developing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the allegation a “desperate falsehood” and accused the Europeans of “bowing to US bullying.”
Hook voiced pride that the protesters had targeted Iran’s “corrupt religious mafia” and not the United States and its sanctions.
Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights lawyer, in an interview with the France 24 news agency, backed Western efforts to weaken the regime but criticised economic sanctions that hurt ordinary Iranians.
Iranians across ideological lines have also widely criticised Trump for imposing a ban on most Iranians from travelling to the United States.