Sanctions and social media: Civil unrest and Iran-US relations

Sanctions and social media: Civil unrest and Iran-US relations

Recent domestic and international developments have negatively affected the stability of the Iranian regime. U.S sanctions continue to cripple the Iranian economy, and tensions continue to rise between the Iranian government and its people. Diplomatic options are still available to solve its economic crisis. However, the Iranian government continues to resist the United States in its attempt to maintain order.

Domestic tension and social media

Civil unrest in Iran reached a tipping point last month. Hundreds of students held rallies against mandatory hijab regulations at the University of Tehran, Iran’s oldest modern educational institution.

Photos and videos of the protests were widely shared across social media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, as university students chanted about their right to choose what to wear and about freedom of choice. Social networks are tightly controlled in Iran. However, they have come to play an important role in the anti-government demonstrations taking place across the country.

Social media in Iran has always been under constant threat of censorship. This became especially true in March 2018, when pictures of a woman standing without her hijab were widely shared on Twitter and Facebook. Since then, both platforms have been strictly banned. However, many people have been able to bypass internet blocks by using proxies and virtual private networks (VPNs). These have given them unfettered access to applications that would otherwise be banned.

What are the protests about

These recent protests and acts of defiance are part of the broader “Green Movement”. This is a political movement focusing on the democratisation of social, cultural, and political life in Iran. It is difficult to divide the demand for equality and self-determination along ideological lines. As a result, recent grass-roots movements become far more effective by including individuals from all walks of life. This includes both secular and non-secular individuals.

What previous reformists across Iran have lacked, however, current reformists have: a means of coming together in a cohesive manner. This equips them with the opportunity to combat the oppressive nature of their government. Through social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and Telegram, an app that allows individuals to broadcast messages to several people via public channels, citizens are able to mobilise in groups and organise protests.

According to Al-Monitor, over half of Iran’s 81 million residents use the internet. Through the internet, citizens are able to see what is beyond their borders, toward tangible ideas of good governance, society, and life. The internet has provided regular Iranians with the means to coalesce and spark change while also destabilising the current social order.  

US pressure

Compounding these domestic issues is the international pressure from recent U.S. sanctions against Iran. The sanctions aim to curb Iranian expansionism in the Middle East. They also aim at crippling the country’s economy, in an attempt to trigger a democratic revolution by advancing the people’s aversion for their regime.

The tactic appears to be working. U.S. officials claim to “have wiped $10 billion from Iranian revenue since November,” and Bloomberg News reported that since the elimination of waivers for eight countries that had previously been allowed to import Iranian oil, Iran’s oil shipments have sharply declined.

These economic setbacks will have negative effects on the Iranian people, especially the poor, destabilising an already precarious domestic situation. According to the Financial Times, Iran’s national currency, the rial, has lost more than 60 percent of its value since last year. Food prices have also risen by 85 percent.

The US also inserted a military presence in the Persian Gulf in what it sees as a defense of Saudi Arabia against alleged attacks carried out by Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthis.

The Trump administration has delivered a clear message to the Iranian regime: come back to the bargaining table or risk collapse. The latter option may be harsher than they realise.

Expediting violence

According to researchers Klopp and Zuern, violence intensifies as an authoritarian government’s right to power is challenged. If the Iranian government is forced into a transitional moment, social order may break down even further. As a result, this may lead to greater rates of violence and murder in the country. By challenging the government’s authority, the younger generations in Iran could contribute to great transformations. As such, this may lead the country on a trajectory to an uprising as monumental as the 1979 revolution.

The heightened civil unrest, coupled with the United States’ sanctions on Iran, will pressure the government to maintain control. Nonetheless, how it will do that is another question. In the past, the regime has readily used violence and intimidation to stifle dissent. If Iran continues on this path, there may be a greater crackdown on social media and civil protests. Government surveillance via the internet and its morality police will increase. If citizens choose not to follow the law in accordance with Islamic principles, there may be harsher punishments. Quite recently, the government closed 547 restaurants and cafes for not “observing Islamic principles.”  

The Iranian government does not only relies on the use of questionable tactics to quash growing dissent. It has also resorted to using the very same services that it has outlawed. This allows it to maintain the illusion of a stable government. There exist official social media accounts for the supreme leader and other political officials.

The prospects of war

As the Iranian government faces external and internal pressure to change, it’s response has been to resist the actions carried out by the United States.

Iran recently revealed a new surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, called the “Khordad 15.” The missile defence system can trace, engage, and destroy six targets simultaneously. According to Defence Minister Amir Hatami,  the system is meant to “increase its military capabilities to protect its national security and interests.” This does nothing to ease tensions between Iran and the US. Instead it signals to the Trump administration that Iran will resist what it perceives as hostile actions to bring it to the bargaining table.

Trust between the two countries continued to erode last week when the US blamed Iran for an attack on two tankers — one carrying oil and the other a cargo of chemicals — in the Gulf of Oman. Iran was quick to deny any involvement in the attack. As can be seen through media coverage of the attack, neither country is showing a desire to back down. Instead, both are buckling down and demonising the other side. The situation will only escalate as each country takes action to undermine the other.

What lies ahead for Iran-US relations?

As Iran’s domestic situation worsens and civil unrest grows, the government faces pressure to solve its economic woes quickly. Bargaining still remains an option. However, both Iran and the United States need a certain amount of trust and good faith between them. Even so, this is something they sorely lack.

If the situation continues to escalate, it is likely both states will resort to warring via proxies. One way this may play out is through the conflict between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, one of the US’ allies in the Middle East. And if the US continues to send troops into the Middle East, the conflict may find its way to Iraq, which borders Iran. Although both states have signaled they do not want war, it may come about amidst the escalating confusion and mutual animosity.

Categories: Politics, Under The Radar

About Author

Ali Taha

Ali is a fourth-year student at the University of Toronto, specializing in Political Science with a minor in Professional Writing & Communication. Currently, he is an intern for the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (CCR2P), Canada's leading research and advocacy organization on the R2P principle based at the Munk School of Global Affairs. His primary research is focused on democratic institutions in Iran and Lebanon.