U.S. says it has authority to hold Iran accountable for protesters' deaths

Russia urged the United States Thursday not to meddle in Iran's affairs, but the U.S. State Department followed just a few hours later with a forceful statement in support of Iranian protesters.

State Department comments follow Russia expressing concern U.S. will use protests to nix nuclear pact

A top Iranian official called President Donald Trump's recent tweets on the protests 'absurd.' (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

Russia urged the United States Thursday not to meddle in Iran's affairs, but the U.S. State Department followed just a few hours later with a forceful statement in support of Iranian protesters.

The State Department said it condemns deaths and arrests related to the Iranian protests in the "strongest possible terms."

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

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

Anti-government demonstrations erupted a week ago in Iran, and U.S. President Donald Trump has expressed support for the protesters in a series of tweets, as has the White House through its press secretary as well as the State Department.

But Russia, as well as France, said Thursday it is up to Iranians to decide their future free of outside interference.

"We warn the U.S. against attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of the Islamic Republic of Iran," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the state news agency Tass.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov attends a meeting at the U.S. State Department in Washington July 17. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

At least 21 people have died in the demonstrations, which began as protests against economic hardship. Iran's army chief said on Thursday that police forces had quelled the unrest, but his troops were ready to intervene if needed.

"I am certain that our neighbour, our friendly state will manage to overcome current difficulties and come from the current period as a strengthened country and reliable partner to solve various problems", Ryabkov said, according to TASS.

Ryabkov also said on Thursday Washington "is tempted to use the moment to raise new issues with regard to the JCPOA," the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that limits Iran's nuclear program, including restricting uranium enrichment for 10 years. Vice-President Mike Pence said Wednesday the U.S. wants an agreement lasting longer.

In October, Trump declined to certify that Iran was complying with the nuclear deal. He must decide in mid-January if he wants to continue to waive energy sanctions on Iran.

Ryabkov said Moscow is sticking to the position that the deal "is not to be corrected," playing down Washington's stance on the agreement.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani are shown in Sochi on Nov. 22. The two countries are considered allies. (Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via Reuters)

In addition to Russia, Iran and the U.S., the signatories to the JCPOA included China, France, Germany, the European Union and the United Kingdom.

French President Emmanuel Macron, in a speech Thursday to foreign diplomats in Paris, appeared to distance himself from Trump's encouragement.

Macron said that "today there is a crisis in Iran. This crisis [comes from] the free expression of the Iranian people."

"Our role is to be on the lookout," to ensure that protesters' rights are not abused, he said.

Macron added that a durable solution in Iran can't come from "Paris, Brussels or Washington."

"It [must] take place within the country, at the heart of civil society."

Unclear if protests will endure

In a letter Wednesday to United Nations officials, Iranian Ambassador Gholamali Khoshroo complained that Washington was intervening "in a grotesque way in Iran's internal affairs."

He said Trump and Pence were personally stirring up trouble.

"The president and vice-president of the United States, in their numerous absurd tweets, incited Iranians to engage in disruptive acts," the ambassador wrote to the UN Security Council president and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

Iranian pro-government supporters hold posters of Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei during a rallyin Mashhad on Thursday in support of the regime after authorities declared the end of deadly unrest. (Nima Najafzadeh/AFP/Getty Images)

Trump's UN envoy, Ambassador Nikki Haley, has called for an emergency Security Council meeting on Iran, saying the UN needed to speak out in support of the protesters. As yet, no meeting has been scheduled.

"We see no role for the United Nations Security Council in this issue," Ryabkov said according to Russia's RIA news agency. "Iran's domestic affairs have nothing to do with the United Nations Security Council's role," which he said was "maintenance of international peace and security."

he strength of protests shaking Iran was unclear on Thursday after the week of unrest, the largest in Iran since the disputed 2009 election. There were fewer reports of demonstrations as government supporters again took to the streets in several cities and towns.

It wasn't immediately clear if the drop in reports of new demonstrations challenging Iran's theocratic government meant the protests are subsiding or that the authorities' blocking of social media apps has managed to stop protesters from offering new images of rallies.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration acknowledged the speed and breadth of the protests took both it and the Iranian government by surprise. While many Iranians denounce the violence that has accompanied some demonstrations, they echo the protesters' frustration over the weak economy and official corruption.

Thousands rallied on Thursday in support of the government in various towns and cities, including in the northeastern city of Mashhad, where the anti-government protests began last week and extended to other cities.

State television repeatedly broadcast nationalistic songs and described the pro-government rallies as an "answer to rioters and supporters to the riot." That appeared to be a reference to Trump.

The TV also broadcast footage of similar pro-government gatherings Thursday in the cities of Shiraz, Isfahan, Ardabil, Birjand and Yasuj.

With files from Reuters and CBC News