State Department on Protest Crackdown, Intervention in Yemen

In a wide-ranging briefing, U.S. Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, alleged that Iranian security forces may have killed more than 1,000 people, including at least a dozen children, in response to demonstrations that were sparked by a gas price hike on November 15. The protests swept 100 cities over four days. The U.S. estimate exceeded that of Amnesty International, which confirmed 208 deaths as of December 5. Hook acknowledged that verifying the death toll was difficult because of Iranian censorship, but he said that U.S officials “know for certain” that the death toll is in the “many, many hundreds.” Hook cited unspecified reports and 32,000 videos of the crackdown sent to a special State Department tip line. He claimed that “the only support left for the regime is with a handful of clerics, whom the Iranian people despise for having imposed 40 years of brutality on them.”

Hook also announced that the U.S. Navy seized a sizable cache of Iranian weapons bound for Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The group, allegedly backed by Iran, took over the Yemeni capital Sanaa in 2014 and seized control over much of north Yemen by 2016. The shipment contained components of anti-ship cruise missiles, land-attack cruise missiles, air defense missiles, and anti-tank missiles — the “most sophisticated” arms seized by the U.N. Navy to date during the Yemen conflict. Hook said it was yet another example of an Iran violation of the U.N. arms embargo on Iran. 

Hook also announced a reward of up to $15 million for information on Abdul Reza Shahlai, a Revolutionary Guards Qods Force commander based in Yemen. Shahlai was previously accused of planning attacks on the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and an assassination attempt on the Saudi ambassador to Washington in 2011. The following is a transcript of his remarks. 


Special Representative for Iran and Senior Advisor to the Secretary Brian Hook

MR HOOK:  Good morning.  I have three announcements today on Iran, but I will first start by addressing the atrocities the Iranian regime has committed against its own people.  On November 16th, protests were spreading throughout the country.  In Mahshahr, a city in southwest Iran, a number of Iranian demonstrators blocked a road.  The State Department has received videos of what happened next.  Without warning, the IRGC opened fire on the protesters, killing several people.  Many of the protesters fled to nearby marshlands to escape.  The IRGC tracked them down and surrounded them with machine guns mounted on trucks.  They then sprayed the protesters with bullets.  Between the rounds of machine gun fire, the screams of the victims can be heard.  In this one incident alone, the regime murdered as many as a hundred Iranians and possibly more.  When it was over, the regime loaded the bodies into trucks.  We do not yet know where these bodies went, but we are learning more and more about how the Iranian regime treats its own people.

We have seen reports of many hundreds more killed in and around Tehran.  And as the truth is trickling out of Iran, it appears the regime could have murdered over a thousand Iranian citizens since the protests began.  We cannot be certain because the regime blocks information.  Among those murdered are at least a dozen children, including 13 and 14-year-olds.  We have received reports from family members of victims who tried to recover the bodies.  The authorities demanded that the families first pay the cost of the bullets they used.  In many cases, authorities would not hand over the bodies until their family promised not to hold public funerals.

Many thousands of Iranians have been wounded, and at least 7,000 protesters have been detained in Iran’s prisons.  Many of these protesters have been sent to two prisons, the Great Tehran Penitentiary and Qarchak Prison.  Today Secretary Pompeo has determined these entities meet the criteria for gross human rights violations set out in CAATSA, and the State Department is submitting to Congress the names of these entities.

The Great Tehran Penitentiary is known for is inhumane living conditions, which consist of unsanitary and crowded corridors, rodent infestations, insufficient food, water, and medical care.  We have seen reports that protesters have been subject to abuse and mistreatment during interrogations, arbitrary beatings, and rape.  Qarchak Prison is Iran’s largest women’s prison, and also holds many members of religious minority communities.  It too is known for unbearable conditions, including regular assaults and inappropriate behavior of prison guards towards women, chronic lack of water, unsanitary living spaces, and an environment that enables rape and murder.

The United States calls for the immediate release of all protesters detained in prison, as well as all the political prisoners currently held by the regime.

Now is the time for all nations to stand with the Iranian people, diplomatically isolate the regime, and sanction those officials who are responsible for murdering innocent Iranians.

There has been overwhelming support for the Iranian people by the American people.  It is clear there is a bipartisan consensus that the regime’s treatment of the Iranian people is abhorrent and unacceptable.  We are unified here in the United States, and the international community likewise should be unified and support the Iranian people. 

These protests have made clear what Secretary Pompeo and I have been saying for quite some time:  The Iranian people want the regime to focus on investing in people, not proxies.  They are sick of the regime squandering its wealth on proxy warfare, which leads only to economic pressure and diplomatic isolation.  Unfortunately, this is exactly what the Iranian regime continues to do, even while the Iranian people were filling the streets, calling for an end to sectarian adventurism. 

On November 25th, a U.S. warship conducted a flag verification boarding in international waters off the coast of Yemen.  We interdicted a significant hoard of weapons and missile parts, evidently of Iranian origin.  As you can see from the images behind me, the seizure includes sophisticated weapons, sophisticated components of anti-ship cruise missiles, land attack cruise missiles, air defense missiles, and anti-tank missiles.  The vessel reportedly was heading to Yemen to deliver these weapons.  The weapon components comprise the most sophisticated weapons seized by the U.S. Navy to date during the Yemen conflict.  I want to congratulate the U.S. Armed Forces and the U.S. Coast Guard for this important interdiction. 

This discovery is yet more proof of Iran’s efforts to inflame conflicts in the region by proliferating deadly weapons to its proxies.  It is also further evidence of how Iran repeatedly violates the UN arms embargo which has been in place for over a decade. 

We should recall that the Houthis proposed a cessation of missile and air attacks with Saudi Arabia just days after the Iranians struck Saudi oil installations on September 14th.  The Houthis’ de-escalation proposal, which the Saudis are responding to, shows that Iran clearly does not speak for the Houthis, nor have the best interests of the Yemeni people at heart.  Iran is trying to prolong Yemen’s civil war to project power.  Iran should follow the calls of its own people and end its involvement in Yemen.  The Yemeni people have suffered far too long, and Iran has no legitimate interests in Yemen.

Also relating to Yemen, I am announcing today that the State Department’s Rewards for Justice program is offering up to $15 million for information on the financial activities, networks, and associates of Abdul Reza Shahlai.  He is a Yemen-based high-ranking commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force.  This is a part of the Rewards for Justice program for information leading to the disruption of IRGC operations.  Shahlai has a long history of attacks Americans and our allies globally.  He planned multiple assassinations of coalition forces in Iraq, provided weapons and explosives to violent Shia extremist groups, and planned the January 20th, 2007 attack in Karbala that killed five American soldiers and wounded three others.  In 2011, Shahlai funded and directed a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir.  This would have been carried out in a restaurant in Georgetown.  Shahlai also aimed to carry out follow-on attacks in the United States and elsewhere.  Had this scheme succeeded, as many as 200 innocent civilians in the United States could have been killed. 

Given Shahlai’s track record of terrorism and destabilization in Iraq, we remain gravely concerned by his presence in Yemen and potential role in providing advanced weaponry of the kind that we have interdicted to the Houthis.  Iranian UAVs, missiles, and explosive boats have been used by the Houthis to threaten key civilian and economic interests and otherwise wreak havoc in the region.  This designation, together with the recent interdiction in Yemen, underscores our commitment to deny Iran the means to run an expansionist foreign policy.  We call on the international community to join us in holding Iran accountable for its acts of terror both against the nations of the world and against the Iranian people. 

I want to close on one observation about the protests.  The Iranian regime keeps losing major constituencies in its revolutionary base: first the students, then the middle class and merchants, then the working class, and even many of the clergy who criticize the regime.  Now, in the latest protests, nine seminaries were burned.  The only support left for the regime is with a handful of clerics whom the Iranian people despise for having imposed 40 years of brutality on them.  The regime now maintains its grip on power through brute force.

QUESTION:  Thanks.  Brian, just briefly on the incident that you mentioned at the very top.  You said you had the video.  Is this – was this video that was sent to you after the Secretary made his appeal on Twitter?

MR HOOK:  Yes.

QUESTION:  So it was sent through that secure – that way?

MR HOOK:  Right.


MR HOOK:  And we’ve received – at last count, over 32,000 people have submitted --

QUESTION:  Some of them the same thing, though.

MR HOOK:  Well, we’re going through all of it, but that’s how many we’ve received, more than 32,000.

QUESTION:  But so far this is the most egregious incident that you’ve --

MR HOOK:  Yes.

QUESTION:  Okay.  And then on the – you said that it’s possible that the – that more than a thousand people have been killed total since the protests began.

MR HOOK:  Right.

QUESTION:  That’s quite a lot higher – that figure is a lot higher than what – other numbers that have been floating around.  What do you base that on?

MR HOOK:  Well, this is based on – some of it is – it’s a collection of crowdsourcing intelligence, intelligence reports from groups that have been publishing the death toll.  As the regime has slowly restored the internet, we have more videos and more information leaking from the country.  And so we know for certain it is many, many hundreds, and if you remember in the 2009 Green Revolution, which I think lasted for 10 months, you had, if memory serves, 72 people who were killed.  And we are now at the many hundreds, perhaps over a thousand, and this – look, we had protests in a hundred cities, and we saw how the regime responded.  The supreme leader referred to his own people as thugs, and this was a brutal crackdown.  And so as more information comes in, we will continue to update you on the numbers, but that’s what we have now.

QUESTION:  I just want to – you just said, “We had protests in a hundred cities.” 

MR HOOK:  I’m saying – I’m sorry --

QUESTION:  You’re not suggesting that --

MR HOOK:  I’m saying we saw we had.  We saw.  Yes.

QUESTION:  One of the ways that you promised to help the protesters was reconnect the internet.  What happened to that?  Is this something that you considering again? 

And second, yesterday, in a tweet, you mentioned that the Iranian regime is targeting journalists inside and outside.  Inside is understood, but outside, do you have any evidence that actually they’re targeting Iranian American journalists in the United States or oppositions figures, and what are you doing to support them here if it happens?

MR HOOK:  Well, the Iranian regime has a well-documented history of murdering and harassing journalists.  If you look at the website the Committee to Protect Journalists, they have, on their count, the regime has killed four journalists over these many decades.  We’re in regular touch with journalists, and they’re not only harassing journalists, they’re harassing their families.  Those who have connections to family in Iran, they’re also harassing their families, which is a tradition of this regime, that if they want to get to people who are outside of Iran, they threaten the people that are still in Iran.  And so we have been condemning the regime for its harassment of journalists, for its – they jail journalists; they murder journalists. 

And so when you look at the constitution of Iran, it guarantees basic freedoms – freedom of assembly, freedom of press, freedom of speech.  And the regime is not only not protecting them, they are violating them. ...  

And on the internet, yes, this was an unprecedented shutdown of the internet.  One of the things that I’ll point out is that Iran is in a tough spot, because whenever they’ve shut down the regime[1] it is in – we live in an e-commerce economy, and when you shut down your internet, you’re shutting down your economy as well.  And so they can only do this sort of trick for so long.  It was an unprecedented shutdown of the internet, and there was enormous economic consequences for them, and they’re already struggling economically.  It’s why they are having to raise the price of gas and to ration gas. 

And so shortly after I came into this role, we worked to get tools into the hands of the Iranian people that would allow them to communicate with each other, in spite of regime efforts to shut that down.  And we do know that tens of thousands of Iranians have used these tools that we have helped to facilitate communication.  After every protest, we go through and do an inventory of lessons learned so that we can be more responsive to the Iranian people.

QUESTION:  Could you give us your assessment of who really is responsible for organizing the protests in a hundred different cities?  How organized is the uprising regionally?  And also, what is your assessment of the exiled NCRI/MEK organization with regard to their influence over the protests or their connectivity to demonstrators in various cities?

MR HOOK:  The regime, I think, since in the Green Revolution of ’09, decided that its best tactic it can use to prevent people from organizing is to sheer off the bravest of the protesters, arrest them, and kill them.  And so it is – look, they even jail and murder environmentalists when they organize, like the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation and the Canadian Iranian who was arrested.  The Iranians claim he committed suicide; it’s much more likely that they killed him in jail.  This is somebody who is trying to promote wildlife protection.  And so whether it’s the environment or whether it’s labor unrest or unrest about corruption and squandering their wealth on foreign adventures, the regime follows the same tactic of preventing any organized opposition. 

But what we’ve seen with these recent protests, this is the worst political crisis the regime has faced in its 40 years.  And as I – my observation at the end pointed out that in every decade this regime has been in power, it keeps losing larger segments of its society.

QUESTION:  So there isn’t a monolithic organization.  Is that what you’re saying?  It’s an uprising that’s sort of wider and chaotic and across society?

MR HOOK:  Well, I don’t have any comment on whether there’s a specific group that is doing this, but the fact that you saw protests across so many different cities – and I would also just point out none of these protests are against the United States.  This is sort of a regular canard that I hear, that these sanctions are going to unify the Iranian people and it’s – and they’re going to rally around the regime.  That hasn’t happened.  There are no protests against the United States.  All of these protests are directed at a corrupt religious mafia that has been terrorizing its own people for 40 years.

QUESTION:  So the reason I bring up NCRI/MEK

MR HOOK:  I don’t have any comments on specific groups.

QUESTION:  Has the U.S. seen this video that’s been submitted by European members of the UN to the secretary general of a flight test of a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear weapon, and what is the U.S. assessment of that?  Do you have any reaction for what the Europeans are calling for?

MR HOOK:  Is this in reference to the E3 letter that went out yesterday?  Yeah, the E3, I think, decided to, as best I can tell from the letter, condemn Iran’s violations.  Well, I think the E3 said that they are consistent[2] with Iran’s obligations under Resolution 2231.  And so in response, Foreign Minister Zarif said that Iran is determined to resolutely continue its activities related to ballistic missiles.  So we already have a response from the Iranian regime that it will continue with its ballistic missiles and its space-launch vehicles.

One of the many deficiencies of the Iran nuclear deal is that it ended the prohibition on Iran’s ballistic missile testing.  That was one of the concessions that was made.  It was a mistake.  And we are trying to restore that, among other things, the UN standard of no enrichment.  And we need to renew the UN arms embargo that expires in about 10 months and the travel ban on Qasem Soleimani and 22 other Iranians that are also going to be lifted under the Iran deal. 

And so I think we have seen an expansion of Iran’s ballistic missile proliferation and missile testing during the life of the Iran nuclear deal, and we are trying to reverse those gains.  We are trying to reverse many of the gains that Iran has made on its missile program and its regional aggression over the last many years.