People demonstrate in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, to support protests across Iran, on January 2 2018. Picture: REUTERS
People demonstrate in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, to support protests across Iran, on January 2 2018. Picture: REUTERS

Deadly protests in Iran have intensified talks within the Trump administration about imposing fresh sanctions against the Islamic Republic, as the US president seized on the crisis to justify his long-standing opposition to a 2015 nuclear agreement.

President Donald Trump met Vice-President Mike Pence and members of his national security team on Tuesday to discuss the protests amid deliberations already under way about reimposing suspended sanctions or adding new ones, according to two White House officials who asked not to be identified.

The meeting came about 10 days before Trump must decide whether to continue waiving sanctions that were lifted under the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.

"We certainly keep our options open" on adding to US sanctions, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters on Tuesday.

Trump took to Twitter earlier in the day to say the "people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime", while the US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, said she would call for an emergency session of the UN Security Council.

"We must not be silent," said Haley, who rejected Iranian government accusations that the protests have been orchestrated from abroad. "The people of Iran are crying out for freedom."

An administration official said no decision on sanctions had been made, but one of the options being discussed was imposing targeted sanctions on Iranian officials.

A more drastic option would be reinstating the sanctions suspended by the nuclear accord, but that would almost certainly destroy the agreement, and the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said such a step would not be taken lightly.

In 2017 Trump requested that Congress set specific trigger points that would automatically reimpose sanctions unless Iran meets a list of US demands, including to curb its ballistic missile programme.

Rising prices

Unrest in Iran began on December 28 with a rally against rising prices and the government’s handling of the economy, before turning into a wider protest against the political establishment.

Nine people were killed in various cities during clashes on Monday, according to state-run television, bringing the death toll to about 20.

Since Saturday, 450 people have been held in the capital Tehran, 150 were arrested in Hamedan and an additional 138 have been detained in Mashhad, according to local officials.

Now the protests may be slowing. There were no demonstrations or gatherings on Tuesday evening in downtown Tehran’s Enghelab Square, the vast intersection close to Tehran University that has historically been a focus of political protests in the capital and was the site of protests at the weekend.

Black armoured police vans dotted the corners of the square. Scores of uniformed regular police holding batons and riot police clad in black anti-riot gear were deployed in the middle of the square and lined the main thoroughfare bisecting it. Many shops closed early while others were back to regular hours after having been forced to shut down over the past few nights because of clashes.

"They’re not out tonight, thank God," said a shop owner, who did want to be named because of the sensitivity of speaking to foreign media.

The US threat comes ahead of deadlines Trump faces in January on whether to continue waiving the sanctions that were frozen in return for Iran agreeing to curb its nuclear programme.

Trump declined to certify Iran’s compliance with the agreement in 2017, though Congress did not pass new sanctions that would probably scuttle the accord.

Nuclear deal

The crisis has given Trump an opportunity to pressure critics of his approach to Iran and the nuclear accord, which he has long criticised as the "worst deal ever".

By publicly praising protesters, Trump is also separating himself from the approach President Barack Obama took to street demonstrations that followed Iranian elections in 2009. At the time, the Obama administration said too much US support for protesters would only delegitimise their cause.

Referring to the nuclear deal, Trump tweeted on Tuesday: "All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their ‘pockets.’ The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The US is watching!"

International inspectors — and the five other countries than joined the US in signing the nuclear deal with Iran — have found the country is abiding by its restrictions on its nuclear programme, and Iranian officials have protested that the purported benefits for their economy have been slow to materialise.

Trump’s tweets on the protests have drawn anger and ridicule from Iranians, who point to the inconsistency between his apparent support for them and his policy to bar them from getting US visas.

Iranian politicians are likely to use the US president’s remarks to suggest that the US and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s chief regional rival, are stoking unrest to weaken Iran.

The protests are a rare public display of anger against a political establishment that has kept a tight grip on power since the 1979 Islamic Revolution against the pro-western shah.

The demonstrations, however, are smaller than the 2009 protests and do not pose an "existential" threat to the regime, according to Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council.

"It doesn’t seem to have the organisation and the leadership to really pose an existential threat to the regime, but it can really force to change the conversation and shake up the political landscape," Parsi told Bloomberg TV.