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Trump warns Iranian leaders the 'U.S. is watching' as protests roil country

by Adam Edelman /  / Updated 
A vehicle burns as demonstrators protested high prices and the poor state of the economy in Dorud, in Iran's Lorestan province, on Dec. 30.SalamPix / Abaca/Sipa USA via AP

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President Donald Trump put Iran on notice Tuesday, blasting the nation’s regime as "brutal and corrupt," and warning that America is watching how the protests that have rocked the country in recent days unfold.

"The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime," Trump tweeted.

"All of the money that President Obama so foolishly gave them went into terrorism and into their 'pockets,'" he continued, referring to the Iran nuclear deal. "The people have little food, big inflation and no human rights. The U.S. is watching!"

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Trump's continued tweeting — he posted Monday that Iran was "failing at every level" and that it was "TIME FOR CHANGE!"— came as Iran continued to be roiled by protests by citizens angry about the nation's economic situation.

Related: Iran protesters stage biggest demonstrations since 'Green Movement'

At least 20 people have died in clashes between demonstrators and state security forces, according to Iranian state media. Hundreds of others have been arrested in the protests — the largest since the country's disputed 2009 presidential election — and some activists have taken the rare step of publicly criticizing the country's religious leaders.

Offering his first comments during the six days of unrest, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday accused the "enemies of Iran" of meddling in the country's affairs.

"In recent events, enemies of #Iran have allied & used the various means they possess, including money, weapons, politics &intelligence services, to trouble the Islamic Republic," he tweeted. "The enemy is always looking for an opportunity & any crevice to infiltrate &strike the Iranian nation."

A vehicle burns as demonstrators protested high prices and the poor state of the economy in Dorud, in Iran's Lorestan province, on Dec. 30.SalamPix / Abaca/Sipa USA via AP

Later Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump supported the Iranian people but stopped short of saying the president wanted to see regime change as a result of the protests.

Instead, she repeatedly said the White House’s “ultimate end game would be that the citizens and people of Iran are actually given basic human rights” and for the regime to “stop being a state sponsor of terror.”

“If they want to do that through current leadership, if that's possible, okay, but that's our priority to make sure that those policies are met,” Sanders said.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley also weighed in, praising the "great bravery" of the Iranian people and reading aloud to reporters some of the messages being chanted by the protesters, countering the Iranian government's social media blockade.

Haley dismissed Iranian insinuations that the protests are the result of actions by Iran's enemies, calling it "complete nonsense" and said the U.S. would call for emergency sessions of the U.N. Security Council and the U.N. Human Rights Council, but that the White House had "no unilateral plans at this time" for action against Iran.

A day earlier, Iran's reformist President Hassan Rouhani acknowledged the seriousness of the protests, tweeting that "the authorities must pay attention to the people's demands."

The protests started out as local rallies against Iran's economic problems but have since spread in both geography and scope. Many Iranians expected that their financial situation would improve after their country signed the 2015 nuclear deal with the U.S. and five other world powers.

Under the deal, the country agreed to limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for sanctions being lifted. The economy has since improved — but there has been widespread anger that the benefits have not trickled down to ordinary citizens.

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