National Security

Pompeo Vows to Stand Beside Iranian Protesters Seeking to Topple Hardline Regime

New sanctions hit senior Iranian officials complicit in mass human rights abuses

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo / Getty Images

In one of the clearest signs to date that the Trump administration is moving toward support for regime change in Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threw the weight of the administration behind a growing protest movement in the Islamic Republic that is now threatening to topple the theocratic ruling regime.

Pompeo said at the State Department on Thursday that the Trump administration stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Iranian demonstrators who have taken to the streets amid a bloody crackdown by the regime that has already killed more than 1,000 people. While officials stopped short of calling for the regime to be deposed, Pompeo's statement indicates the administration stands on the side of pro-democracy voices in Tehran.

"No matter what, I tell the Iranian people what I have said for many months and I will continue to say so long as it is required to be said: America hears you. America supports you. America stands with you. We do so for your sake. For the sake of freedom," Pompeo said, in a statement that was a clear departure from the course taken by the Obama administration, which sat on the sidelines when a similar outbreak of protests occurred in 2009.

"The Iranian people have a steadfast friend and they are good people and they have spirit," Pompeo said before a crowd that included Iranian dissidents and those who have suffered abuse at the regime's hands. "The friend is a unique North Star for hope for all those oppressed and their voice, their writings, their faith, and their ideals. The United States will stand and has stood under President Trump with the Iranian people."

Pompeo also unveiled a host of new sanctions on Iranian leaders the administration has deemed to be chief enablers of the regime's crackdown on protesters.

To date, the State Department has codified more than 36,000 pieces of information—including video, pictures, and personal testimonies—detailing the Iranian regime's systematic killing and imprisonment of those who took to the streets in the most recent wave of protests.

"We've heard these stories, we've seen these stories," Pompeo said. "We've seen the faces. Those faces—the faces of the victims—will not be forgotten, and the faces of the perpetrators will be pursued. Iran's human rights violations are worse than unacceptable. They're evil and they're wrong."

In one of the boldest policy moves announced Thursday, the United States will now restrict visas for current and former Iranian officials complicit in human rights abuses. This also will impact the family members of these officials and could impact scores of Iranians who come to the United States for education and vacation.

"Our action will also restrict visas for these individuals' family members," Pompeo said. "The materials that are being provided to us by citizens from all across Iran will be invaluable in us using this new authority to put true pressure and to hold accountable those who are denying freedom and justice to the people of Iran. "

Additionally, Iran was redesignated by Pompeo as a "country of particular concern" under the International Religious Freedom Act. It is now among "the worst violators of basic fundamental religious freedoms," he said.

New sanctions also have been issued on two Iranian judges who have handed down some of the harshest sentences on Iranian dissidents. This includes Mohammad Moghisseh, who recently sentenced Iranian human rights lawyer and women's rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes by whip.

Another sanctioned judge, Abolghasem Salavati, sentenced American citizen Xiyue Wang to years in prison on what the Trump administration called false charges of espionage. Wang was freed from Iran this month as part of a prisoner swap with the United States.

"Salavati has sentenced hundreds of political prisoners," Pompeo said. "He's the go-to guy. He sentenced journalists and human rights activists to prison—or worse, to death. He's a tool of the regime's oppression, not an impartial friend of justice. And today he's now sanctioned by the United States of America."

Pompeo went on to deliver a message straight to the Iranian leadership.

"I have a message for the leaders of the regime," he said. "If you seek to recover respect from your people and from the world, if you seek stability and prosperity for a once great nation, you must respect the commitments that you have made. You must respect human rights."

"The protest that started and accelerated in November clearly signaled that the Iranian people have just had enough," Pompeo said. "They're fed up."