U.S. Tells Iran It Will 'Hold Accountable Those Who Commit Violence Against Protesters'

Updated | The United States "condemned" the Iranian government and threatened to "hold accountable those who commit violence against protesters" in a statement issued by the State Department on Wednesday as unrest gripped the nation.

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms the deaths to date and the arrests of at least one thousand Iranians," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in the statement. 

"We have ample authorities to hold accountable those who commit violence against protestors, contribute to censorship, or steal from the people of Iran."

The statement also had a message for the people, killed wounded or oppressed by Iran's government.

"To the regime's victims, we say: You will not be forgotten."

Unrest has gripped Iran for the past week as tens of thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets. More than 20 demonstrators have been killed in clashes with security forces since the protests erupted last Thursday in opposition to austerity measures implemented by President Hassan Rouhani. 

Photos and videos of the chaos show police deploying water cannons and tear gas on demisters. The vast majority of protesters, 90 percent, were under 25 years old, Reuters reported.

Iran protest Iranian students protest at the University of Tehran during a demonstration driven by anger over economic problems, in the capital Tehran on December 30, 2017. Students protested in a third day of demonstrations sparked by anger over Iran's economic problems, videos on social media showed, but were outnumbered by counter-demonstrators. STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Hundreds have been arrested, but incarceration is not all the protesters risk by speaking out: They could potentially be sentenced to death, according to the head of Tehran's Revolutionary Court, as reported by the Associated Press.

It's unclear exactly how many people have participated in the protests, which have broken out in about two dozen towns, but it is reportedly Iran's largest round of protests since 2009 demonstrations, known as the “Green Movement," that challenged the results of an election.

President Donald Trump spoke out against the Iranian regime in a tweet on Sunday after The New York Times reported the Iranian government had blocked access to social media and messaging apps.

"Iran, the Number One State of Sponsored Terror with numerous violations of Human Rights occurring on an hourly basis, has now closed down the Internet so that peaceful demonstrators cannot communicate. Not good!" Trump wrote.

The Department of Treasury also announced on Thursday it was placing sanctions on five Iranian-based entities, specifically targeting Iran's ballistic missile program.

"These sanctions target key entities involved in Iran's ballistic missile program, which the Iranian regime prioritizes over the economic well-being of the Iranian people," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. "As the Iranian people suffer, their government and the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of its armed forces,] fund foreign militants, terrorist groups, and human rights abuses.

"The United States will continue to decisively counter the Iranian regime's malign activity, including additional sanctions targeting human rights abuses.  We will not hesitate to call out the regime's economic mismanagement, and diversion of significant resources to fund threatening missile systems at the expense of its citizenry."

In its second statement on the protests, Nauert expressed the State Department's solidarity with the protesters. 

"The Iranian people have been expressing their desire for dignified treatment, an end to corruption, improved transparency, and increased economic opportunities," she said. 

Nauert continued: "Unfortunately, the government continues to imprison and kill those who are brave enough to venture into the street. It is limiting the flow of information into Iran, restricting free speech, and attempting to prevent the outside world from observing its own repression.

"We support these legitimate aspirations of the Iranian people, and call on the government to allow the free exchange of ideas and information."

This article has been updated to include Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin's statement regarding new sanctions.