President Donald Trump pledged to help Iranians "take back" their government Wednesday, as his White House weighed new sanctions against elements of the regime involved in a violent crackdown against protestors.
"Such respect for the people of Iran as they try to take back their corrupt government. You will see great support from the United States at the appropriate time!" Trump tweeted Wednesday.
The mercurial president offered no specifics, but a senior administration official said that the White House was "looking across the board" at sanction authorities allowing Trump to target organisations or individuals involved in human rights violations, censorship or preventing free assembly.
"That requires information, but there is a lot of information out there, so we intend to start assembling that and see what we can do," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The United States will "use all the information sources at our disposal to be able to get actionable information about who is doing the crackdown, who is violating human rights, who is using violence against protesters and to feed that in to our sanctions designation machinery," the official said.
Trump has sought repeatedly to ramp up pressure the Iranian regime, which has struggled to contain a week of protests across the country.
Rhetoric and diplomacy
But until now, his administration's input has been rhetorical and diplomatic.
On Tuesday he described the regime as "brutal and corrupt," ignoring warnings that US involvement could make it easier for the regime to blame outsiders for the unrest.
Trump's administration also demanded a snap UN Security Council meeting to debate unrest that has killed 21 people -- mostly protestors.
The official said the United States would also seek condemnation of Iran at The United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, used her public platform to recite protesters' slogans and declared that "the people of Iran are crying out for freedom."
US officials said Iran appeared to be using local police, the Basij militia and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to crack down on protests, much as it did in 2009 to crush the last major bout of unrest.
But the latest protests, having spread to 26 cities fueled by public discontent over economic conditions, appear more difficult to quell.
"We are looking at something different, we are looking at something new that we have not seen in Iran since the Islamic Revolution, so the last 40 years," a senior administration official said.
"That means it's not entirely clear what it means politically inside Iran, it's unpredictable."
Washington believes the protests, which began in Iran's second largest city Mashhad, initially targeted reformist President Hassan Rouhani and may have been led by conservatives linked to prominent Mashhad cleric Ebrahim Raisi -- who lost to Rouhani in 2017 elections.
But once begun, the demonstrations over food and fuel prices appear to have metastasized into a much broader movement against the country's clerical regime.
Preparing the ground
Trump -- advised by a clutch of former generals who spent a career fighting Iranian proxies -- has taken a hard line against Iran since coming to office.
He abandoned his predecessor Barack Obama's diplomatic overtures and embraced allies in Israel and Saudi Arabia who are keen to confront Iran's growing regional power.
Not least among the Obama-era policies that Trump has targeted is a 2015 deal that gave Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.
Trump for now has left the fate of the nuclear deal with Congress while he continues to oppose it.
But he must soon decide whether to extend sanctions relief. If he declines to do so, the deal could effectively be dead.
Obama's muted support for Iranian protests in 2009 has also appeared to play a role in the Trump administration's' more vocal response.
Iran blames 'enemies'
In response to Trump's latest Twitter attack, Iranian officials have said online accounts in the United States, Britain and Saudi Arabia are fomenting protests, which Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed on the country's "enemies."
On Wednesday, Iran's Revolutionary Guards claimed that the protests were over, and said that at most 15,000 people had taken part nationwide.
"Today we can announce the end of the sedition," said Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Revolutionary Guards.