WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Tuesday threw the weight of the U.S. government behind the protesters taking to the streets of Iran, rooting them on despite the risk of helping Iranian authorities dismiss a week of major demonstrations as the product of American instigation.
As Iran's supreme leader accused "enemies of Iran" of trying to destabilize his country, the State Department pressed Tehran to unblock social media sites used by the protesters. It even offered advice to tech-savvy Iranians on circumventing state internet controls.
President Donald Trump declared it was "time for change" in Iran, and other officials floated the possibility of additional sanctions. At the United Nations, Ambassador Nikki Haley sought a Security Council meeting to show support for those protesting in the Islamic Republic.
"We want to help amplify the voices of the Iranian people," said Haley, who appeared before cameras to recite the chants of protesters across Iran. She said Iran's claim that other countries were fomenting the unrest was "complete nonsense," describing the dissent as homegrown.
Borrowing from a response playbook it has used before, Iran's government blamed the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Britain for the protests. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the 78-year-old supreme leader, said Iran's enemies were using money, weapons, politics and spies "to create problems for the Islamic system, the Islamic Republic and the Islamic Revolution."
Trump was undeterred, praising Iranians for "finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime." In an allusion to possible sanctions in response to human rights violations, Trump said the United States would closely monitor the situation.
"The U.S. is watching!" the president tweeted.
Beyond rhetoric, though, it wasn't clear what the Trump administration could do substantively to empower the protesters, who are railing against corruption, mismanagement and economic woes including higher food prices. His support also sets up a potential test of his presidential leadership if the protests — already deadly — grow more violent.
At least 21 people have died and hundreds have been arrested over six days of demonstrations, the largest in Iran since the "Green Movement" that erupted in 2009 following a disputed presidential election. The new outbreak started in Mashhad, Iran's second-largest city, and has expanded to many others.
Iranian authorities have sought to suppress the protests in part by shutting down key social media sites protesters use to communicate, including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and the messaging app Telegram. On Tuesday, Undersecretary of State Steve Goldstein urged Iran's government to unblock the sites.
"They are legitimate avenues for communication," Goldstein said. He said the U.S. has an "obligation not to stand by."
Iranians seeking to evade the blocks can use virtual private networks, Goldstein said. Known as VPNs, the services create encrypted data "tunnels" between computers and can be used to access overseas websites blocked by the local government.
The primary U.S. goal is to ensure enough global attention to deter Iranian authorities from violently cracking down on protesters with impunity, said a senior State Department official involved in Iran policy. The official wasn't authorized to comment by name and demanded anonymity.
For Trump, the protests have served as an unexpected but welcome opportunity to rally the world against Iran, and U.S. officials said the administration was actively encouraging other countries to back the protests. Early U.S. attempts to get European allies to coordinate their messaging with the U.S. ran into obstacles, but several countries including France and Italy have joined in expressing concerns.
In the U.S., Trump's full-throated support for the protesters has renewed the debate about how best to encourage change in Iran, whose government Trump deems a top national security threat.
Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. took a more cautious approach during the last major wave of anti-government protests. It was concerned about enabling Iranian authorities to exploit longstanding suspicions of the U.S., dating back to American and British support for a 1953 coup toppling Iran's elected prime minister.
Ben Rhodes, Obama's former deputy national security adviser, said "too much ownership" of the protests by Trump would likely be counterproductive.
"I can't imagine that the people marching in the streets of Iran are looking to Donald Trump for inspiration or support," Rhodes said. "I just don't think it helps things for the White House to make this into a U.S.-versus-the-Iranian-government circumstance."
But former Sen. Joe Lieberman, a staunch Iran critic, said it's a given Tehran will portray dissent as externally provoked.
"That's a very weak excuse for American inaction and inconsistency with our own interests and values. I'm glad President Trump is not following that advice," Lieberman said in an interview.
SIOUX CITY | The year 2018 will bring a handful of new challenges to Sioux City's government leaders.
The city faces the expectation of steep operational expenses for its newly formed ambulance division, rising infrastructure repair and replacement costs and uncertainty on how much of a subsidy the Tyson Events Center will require under a new private management contract.
Newly elected council members Dan Moore, Pete Groetken and Alex Watters reflected on those challenges, as well as other goals for 2018, after taking their oaths of office late Tuesday morning during a short meeting in the council chambers.
"The ambulance service is heavy on my mind," Moore, who also will remain mayor pro tempore, said after the meeting. "That's a service that we cannot afford to cut corners on."
Sioux City's new Emergency Medical Services Division, which began responding to ambulance calls 8 a.m. Monday, replaces the service formerly provided by Siouxland Paramedics Inc., a nonprofit ambulance service that ceased responding to emergency calls in the morning hours of New Year's Day.
Moore said he wants to ensure the city provides adequate service for its residents as it decides how it will pay for the $600,000 to $1 million subsidy -- the exact amount is unknown -- that such a service will likely require over the next six months of the current fiscal year budget and in future budget years.
He said that will be an important part of budget talks that will begin later this month.
Groetken said he hopes to keep pushing forward on infrastructure, repairing the roads and utility lines most in need of fixing. Another goal, he said, will be seeing the Sioux City Reinvestment District begin to take shape, as the three remaining development projects in the district are slated to begin construction this year.
"I want to see those projects get off to a great start," he said.
Watters said he wants to work to improve Sioux City's marketing efforts. That includes working with Spectra, the group now overseeing the city's tourism efforts, to market the city regionally, spreading the word about what it has to offer.
"If we have low unemployment and we want to expand our jobs, we've got to bring more people here," Watters said. "That's something I'm going to focus on."
Moore, Groetken and Watters, all incumbents, cruised to victory during November's City Council elections. Moore and Groetken are beginning their second four-year terms on the council, and Watters will begin his first full term after being appointed early last year to fill the seat left vacant by Keith Radig.
Several friends and family members of the council attended Tuesday's swearing-in. District Judge John Ackerman administered the oaths of office.
At Tuesday's meeting, Mayor Bob Scott also appointed Moore as his mayor pro tempore, a post he has held for the last two years. which means Moore will fill in at meetings and functions when Scott is unavailable.
SIOUX CITY | While a junior in college, Leesa McNeil hit that point that many undergrads can identify with.
As McNeil tells the story, she was in her University of South Dakota dorm room, wondering just what kind of career she was going to pursue through her majors in criminal justice and political science.
"I liked the idea of justice, but I didn't want to be a lawyer. I wanted to be involved in the justice system," McNeil said.
She just had no idea how. She was praying for a sign for a Plan B at a point when she didn't really have a Plan A. Call it faith, fate or luck, but McNeil signed up for a class called Introduction to Court Administration for the following semester.
"I took that and never looked back," McNeil said. "I always feel so fortunate that I got to do a job that I wanted to do."
On Wednesday, McNeil will end what she considers a dream career. She'll retire as the Iowa Judicial District 3 Court Administrator -- the first woman to hold the job in the district -- a job she's held for 33 years. Add in the two years McNeil spent as the assistant court administrator when she first arrived in the Sioux City office, and she's spent exactly 35 years here -- her first day on the job was Jan. 3, 1983.
As administrator for the 16-county district in Northwest Iowa, it's been McNeil's job to work with the chief judge to make sure the court system in this part of the state runs smoothly. She's in charge of budgeting, hiring, managing case flow and many other duties. It's a role similar to that of a hospital administrator or school superintendent.
And that role has changed significantly since she moved here from a job in Michigan so she could be closer to family in Aberdeen, South Dakota.
"When I started, it was all paper. So I've been involved on almost every committee that set up computerization of the system," said McNeil, who earned her master's degree in court administration from the University of Denver College of Law.
As an assistant court administrator, McNeil would drive to each of the 16 counties in the district four times a year when trial sessions were set to begin. In each county, she would look at trial summaries, read them, take written notes and schedule cases for trial, then type up the schedule with carbon paper to send copies throughout the district.
"It's crazy to think how we did it 35 years ago compared to now," she said.
Now, the court system is centralized and computerized. Court filings are electronically transmitted to other offices and state agencies.
At one time, McNeil said, she envisioned working at the state court administration office in Des Moines. Then she met her husband, Jon Nylen, and they decided they weren't leaving.
The two will retire together. Nylen, a juvenile court officer, also retires Wednesday. The pair talked about retirement for the past three years. McNeil said they felt now was the best time.
"I want to go out when I'm feeling on top," McNeil said. "I feel good about the work I've done and the work I've helped get done. It just feels right."
McNeil will stay busy in retirement, continuing to volunteer with three groups that she became involved with as court administrator, teaching an online class on criminal justice and criminal court systems for the University of Phoenix, making visits to nursing homes, schools and other organizations with her golden retriever and remaining involved with prairie and Loess Hills conservation groups.
She's also going to delve into genealogy to determine if her ancestors were Irish or Scottish and learn to play the bagpipes.
There's plenty to do in retirement, she's realized, and she wanted it that way rather than sitting at home doing nothing.
"You have to live with a purpose," McNeil said.
For 35 years, that purpose has been to make sure justice in Northwest Iowa was delivered efficiently, and she'll miss the daily action in the courthouse and the buzz when there's an exciting trial attracting media attention.
It's the kind of career she had hoped for when pondering her future in that dorm room.
"I feel so blessed I got to spend my life in the career that I dreamt about and in a place that I love," she said.
SIOUX CITY | Woodbury County supervisors on Tuesday denied Matthew Ung's bid to remain as chairman for another year, as his colleagues instead unanimously selected Rocky De Witt.
"We'll give this a shot," De Witt, who is entering his second year on the board. His comments came as he and Ung switched seats, assuming the middle spot on the table, where the gavel rested.
The drama over which of the five superiors would lead the board in 2018 unfolded Tuesday during board's first meeting of the new year.
Ung tried to make his case for another year at the helm, saying he had performed admirably leading a board compromised of members with three or less years of experience, the fewest in more than three decades. Referring to the practices of past boards, he urged his colleagues to drop the "attachment" to "always" rotate the chair post among the board members each year.
The motion to have Ung remain chairman failed on a 4-1 vote, with Ung voting for himself, and Jeremy Taylor, Keith Radig, Marty Pottebaum and De Witt voting no.
Taylor, who preceded Ung as chairman in 2016, nominated De Witt for the post. Taylor said De Witt would have a "thoughtful, measured" approach to leading the county board. His motion passed by an identical 4-1 vote.
De Witt, Taylor, Radig and Ung are all Republicans, while Pottebaum is a Democrat.
Like De Witt, Radig and Pottbaum are also beginning their second year on the board.
De Witt, of rural Lawton, previously worked as a security deputy at the Woodbury County Courthouse, and retired as a journeyman electrician with MidAmerican Energy Co. after a 22-year career.
As board chairman, De Witt said he will lead a taxpayer-friendly budget-setting process through March, ensure there are sufficient services to meet county resident needs and continue long-range planning into county facility modernization.
In addition to presiding over weekly board meetings on Tuesdays, the chair also typically holds more power on the direction of county government and priorities. In the last two years, Ung and Taylor have taken a more hands-on approach with county departments than some previous chairs.
Since 2008, though, no board chair has served more than a one consecutive year.
Also Tuesday, the board unanimously elected Radig as vice chair for 2018. Radig, a former Sioux City Council member, will succeed Taylor as vice chair.