Iran Sanctions and the Public Opinion Battleground

Following its withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – commonly referred to as the Iran Deal – the Trump administration introduced a new wave of sanctions on Iran last Monday. The first wave of sanctions implemented this year targeted financial transactions with U.S. dollars, Iran’s automotive sector, and the purchase of commercial airplanes, and metals such as gold. This month’s second wave of “maximum pressure” primarily targets Iran’s oil exports. The renewed sanctions are supposedly not intended to spur regime change, but rather to cause a significant shift in key areas of Iranian foreign policy, specifically the development of ballistic missiles and funding for militant organizations across the Middle East.

Leading up to the first wave of sanctions, the Iranian rial plunged to new lows. And the effects on domestic Iranian markets have only worsened in the run-up to the second wave of sanctions. The rial devalued further, and common goods such as medicine and food have become increasingly expensive. The Iranian government is preparing to hand out food baskets which will cost 6 million rial ($1,600) over three installments per recipient by March.

The key to whether these sanctions are successful or not depends on their impacts on Iranian public opinion and discourse.

Protests and the Social Media Connection

While the sanctions have had significant impacts on the Iranian and international markets, they have also reinvigorated anti-government protests, which first started last year. Despite President Rouhani’s assertions that sanctions relief resulting from the Iran Deal would result in positive economic growth last year, food prices for staples like eggs increased by 40% as 2017 ran its course. As a result, anti-government protests broke out in Mashhad in December 2017 spreading across Iran, featuring chants of “Death to the dictator” and “Death to the Revolutionary Guard.” The response was a massive crackdown with about 3,700 people detained that month.

Leading up to the first wave of sanctions in August 2018, protests with similar grievances took place, with more protests emerging in October as well. A key factor in mobilizing the 2017-2018 winter protests and the those in the past few months has been social media and will be a critical element in future protests. Social media platforms like Twitter were used to coordinate protests and to share images and videos of the demonstrations.

Online bots – some supported by the Iranian government – attempted to downplay the protests before the government temporarily blocked apps like Twitter and Telegram. Beyond simple censorship, the Iranian government has refined the ability to use social media to spread disinformation, specifically on issues related to sanctions and the Iran Deal. Social media bots have a demonstrable effect on public political discourse in Iran, polarizing and defining online debates.

But the Iranian government aims to further increase its control over domestic internet use by implementing a national information network (NIN). The network functions as a domestic intranet that hosts Iranian websites connected to the global internet only at certain nodes. Given these developments, the Iranian government will increasingly be able to control public awareness and opinion of the regime, politics, and the economy.

Enhancing Sanction Effectiveness: Social Media and Public Opinion

While sanctions are meant to reduce the resources Iran uses funding militant groups and ballistic missile programs, there seems to be little evidence that US sanctions have actually constrained these policy objectives. The sanctions impact the everyday citizen and instead of the government directly. The economic conditions brought about by the sanctions are therefore a clear driver of social unrest and discontentment.

This same the public anger driving the anti-government protests, however, could be influenced by the Iranian government and directed against the US. If the anti-US demonstrations held annually on the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revolution are any indicator, the government is eager to foment anti-US sentiments wherever possible. As Iran consolidates its control over social media-based narratives and opinions, policymakers should expect Iran to exploit rising public discontent.

This is, indeed, a significant potential for the sanctions to backfire. If the economic situation becomes severe enough, in the words of one Iranian official, “leadership in Tehran will welcome a crisis that could change the subject domestically and rally the population round the flag.” Increased economic pressure and President Rouhani’s inability to alleviate the resultant conditions allows hardliners in the government to further their political objectives. This includes even greater state control of the internet, social media, and crackdowns on public opposition to the government’s foreign and economic policies.

In turn, this lends the government and its hardliners more power. Rather than the 180-degree reversal Washington hopes for, empowering government hardliners will only bring increased Iranian commitment to funding militant groups, circumventing sanctions, and developing ballistic missiles (along with their potentially accompanying nuclear warheads).

Yet there is increasing public resentment toward the rich elites in Iran who are not nearly as impacted by the sanctions as the rest of the public, a divide which could be amplified by external and domestic actors to encourage public opposition to Iran’s current policy priorities. The 2017–18 winter protests and their resurgence later this year, moreover, demonstrate public desire for change in their daily lives despite the fact that protests are punishable by death. Public diplomacy and social media campaigns directed toward and by the Iranian public emphasizing Iran’s prioritization of foreign policy expansionism at the expense of its public may very well improve sanction effectiveness.

An economic crisis with widespread protests represents a battleground over domestic Iranian public opinion. Those who wish to see reduced Iranian expansionism should regard public opinion in Iran as a fulcrum to delay or inhibit Iran’s expansionist agenda. If they do not, the Iran government will.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. 

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