State Department to launch social media strategy to back Iranian protesters

The Trump administration ramped up its support of Iranian regime change on Tuesday, announcing it will use Facebook and Twitter to communicate directly with the pro-democracy protesters who have taken to the streets to demand freedom from Tehran's hard-line rule.

The move came after the Iranian government shut off access to Instagram as well as Telegram, a popular, encrypted messaging app used by activists to organize demonstrations. As it did in 2009, when Iran was rocked by protests after a disputed election, Tehran acted swiftly to crack down on protests and cut off their preferred means of communication – social media.

Unlike the Obama administration, which stood largely silent amid those protests, the Trump administration is openly supporting pro-democracy demonstrations.

“We must not be silent," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Tuesday. "The people of Iran are crying out for freedom. All freedom-loving people must stand with their cause.”

The United States will post messages in Farsi on Facebook and Twitter, according to Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Steve Goldstein. While the effort may not facilitate communication among protesters – something Tehran is keen to stop – it will allow the U.S. to unilaterally show it backs the protests.

"We support a freedom of the press," the State Department said in a tweet. "When a nation clamps down on social media, we ask the question — what are you afraid of? We support the people of #Iran, and we support their voices being heard."

Protests have rocked the Islamic republic for nearly a week, in a replay of the 2009 "Green Movement," a social media-driven uprising that was quelled by the theocratic rulership. At least 21 people have been killed and 450 arrested in protests that have spread from Tehran to cities throughout the Muslim nation, the semi-official ILNA news agency reported.

The brutal regime has moved to squash the burgeoning protests by cutting off communication, which it did successfully nearly nine years ago.

Instagram officials declined to comment on the developments.  Telegram could not be reached for comment. Goldstein said the U.S. is working to enable communication despite the Iranian government's censorship efforts.

“Even though many social media sites have been blocked, Iranians can reach our State Department FB and Twitter sites, which are in Farsi, through VPN," Goldstein said. "We would like Iran to open these legitimate forms of communication.”

In addition to social media support, the Trump administration is preparing to impose new sanctions on the regime if they attempt to use force to end the demonstrations.The potential new sanctions, first reported by the Wall Street Journal and confirmed by Fox News, would be imposed in response to human-rights violations.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said it was too early to predict whether those new sanctions would be imposed on the regime.

"We are watching reports very carefully about any potential human rights violations," Nauert said.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders also said Trump supported sanctions, but no final decision has been made.

The latest protests have clearly rattled Iran's leadership. Musa Ghazanfarabadi, head of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court, warned protesters Tuesday that those arrested could face the death penalty when they come to trial. Iran’s government has blasted the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom for instigating further protests, calling them “enemies of Iran.”

Haley warned the international community against a repeat of their response in 2009.

“We must not make that mistake again,” Haley said.

The State Department also sent Arabic speakers to appear on Arabic-language television networks to discuss the protests in Iran.

Fox News' Rich Edson, Adam Shaw and The Associated Press contributed to this report.