U.S. Special Representative Brian Hook took a hard line on Iran’s suppression of domestic protests, just two days after President Donald Trump said that the United States is not backing the protesters.
Trump has been losing interest in the Middle East, but his State Department is still committed to a campaign of “maximum pressure” to isolate Iran. Now, that the campaign has provoked renewed Iranian reactions, Trump administration officials are emphasizing Iran’s internal problems as evidence that the country is close to collapse.
“The Iranian regime keeps losing major constituencies in its revolutionary base,” said Hook, the State Department official in charge of Iran, at a Thursday press briefing. He claimed that the only base of support left for the Iranian government was a “handful of clerics.”
When asked twice whether U.S. policy had shifted from “changing the regime’s behavior” to regime change, Hook did not answer.
“The policy hasn’t changed,” Deputy Assistant Secretary Leonid Khodorkovsky told a National Interest reporter on the way out of the briefing room. “Nice try, though.”
Last month, protests erupted in Iran over a gas price hike. The government shut down the Internet and cracked down with deadly force. The New York Times estimates that 180 to 450 people were killed. Amnesty International has confirmed 208 deaths. Hook, however, speculated that the Iranian government could have killed a thousand people.
At a NATO meeting on Tuesday, reporters asked Trump whether the United States supports the Iranian protesters.
“I don't want to comment on that. But the answer is no,” Trump responded.
“The question was asked do we support them, I thought, financially,” he later clarified. “But we support them very very seriously—the people that are protesting in Iran. They’re looking for their freedom, and we are fully in support of them.”