Ever since the Trump administration’s decision to pull the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 and reimpose crippling sanctions on its economy, and particularly after Washington ended Iranian oil sanctions waivers almost a year later, the Islamic Republic has adopted a more assertive and confrontational foreign and security policy. The dynamic has triggered an unprecedented escalation of tensions between Iran on the one hand and the US and its Arab allies on the other in the Persian Gulf and increased the likelihood of a military conflict in the wider region.

Equally important, yet considerably under-reported, is the impact of President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran on Iran’s domestic politics and how the government is dealing with any form of social and political nonconformity. In fact, with external pressure continuing to mount, the Islamic Republic has tightened its fist at home, so to speak, and is moving towards further securitization of dissonance and dissent in society. Notably, the intensified domestic repression questions the conventional argument advanced by proponents of sanctions that greater international pressure will weaken the state, or more precisely the “regime” (as opposed to the nation or society) and could thus lead to widespread revolt and ultimately regime change. 

It is the Iranian civil society that is being  undermined, not only as a consequence of its shrinking economic power caused by sanctions but also due to the greater suppression and securitization that the state is exercising. 

However, it is the Iranian civil society that is being consistently undermined, not only as a consequence of its shrinking economic power caused by sanctions but also due to the greater suppression and securitization that the state is exercising over society to keep things under control.

“Even in democratic countries, when the state apparatus faces growing international pressure and the looming specter of war, the [sociopolitical] milieu naturally gets securitized and people’s citizenship rights become overshadowed by [the struggle] for preserving security and guaranteeing survival,” Mostafa Tajzadeh, a prominent Tehran-based reformist politician and former deputy interior minister and presidential advisor in President Mohammad Khatami’s administration (1997-2005), told Inside Arabia.

In early May, shortly before Iran’s retaliatory decision to reduce its commitments under the nuclear deal—officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned of the “enemy’s war posture” in various policy domains and urged Iranians to make “appropriate” arrangements and preparations accordingly. 

For the government’s core support base within the general public who still firmly believe in the regime’s legitimacy, this signified that ensuring state security should not just be the job of military and security forces, but that ordinary citizens should also play an active role in protecting the “system.” Around the same time, the top commander of Iran’s regular army (Artesh) Gen. Abdolrahim Mousavi called on all Iranian military forces to go on a “night-before-the-attack” mode and constantly practice war games. 

“When a country goes on a war footing, restrictions are enforced by the state and the society mostly gets along with that, because security and survival take precedence over anything else, even economy [and welfare] . . . so it is only natural for the atmosphere to further radicalize.”

“When a country goes on a war footing, restrictions are enforced by the state and the society mostly gets along with that, because security and survival take precedence over anything else, even economy [and welfare] . . . so it is only natural for the atmosphere to further radicalize,” Tajzadeh continued. 

“Another noteworthy issue is that Trump’s arbitrary and unjustified withdrawal from the JCPOA has rendered the whole idea of negotiation among parts of the Iranian populace meaningless . . . leaving resistance [against the West] as the only path forward, and this means moderates who advocate diplomacy are increasingly undermined and hardliners supporting confrontation increasingly empowered.”                                                          

On Sunday, August 11, Kameel Ahmady—an Iranian-British anthropologist of Kurdish origins who studies child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) in Iran—was detained in Tehran for unspecified reasons and taken into custody in the notorious Evin prison, according to his wife Shafagh Rahmani. The detention of a new dual-national academic by Iranian authorities came around two months after they arrested another researcher, Fariba Adelkhah, a French-Iranian academic who has been working on social and political change in Iran at Paris-based Sciences Po’s Centre for International Studies (CERI). She was detained in June, possibly on suspicion of infiltration and espionage.

It is not, however, only dual nationals and independent academics who are the subject of this reinvigorated campaign of repression. It also targets the very ordinary Iranians who do not necessarily express any political opposition or protest against government policies, but merely refrain from strictly following the state-imposed religious code of conduct in public. 

Crackdown against women is frequent in Iran

Crackdown against women is frequent in Iran

In a highly controversial move in June that was criticized by many as a divisive attempt to turn people against each other, Iran’s judiciary went so far as to announce a phone number and urge “citizens” to report public or private “violations of norms,” such as wearing no proper “hijab” in public, serving alcoholic beverages in restaurants and cafes, dancing with members of the opposite sex in various public places, and holding private night parties. More recently, a number of women who had been trying to challenge the ban on women attending sports matches along with men in stadiums in Tehran were detained.

The heightened wave of arrests and imprisonments is not limited to Tehran.

The heightened wave of arrests and imprisonments is not limited to Tehran, though. Iranian authorities took into custody a group of civil and political activists in the northeastern city of Mashhad, who had written an open letter to Ayatollah Khamenei and demanded his resignation, blaming his “systematic and irresponsible despotism” as Supreme Leader for Iran’s myriad problems and failure of any reform initiative in the Islamic Republic. 

Additionally, in the southwestern city of Shiraz, Mehdi Hajati, an elected reformist member of the city council, was detained late last year after posting a tweet on the fate of two imprisoned Baha’i citizens, and later sentenced to one year in prison. Two months after the start of the jail term in June, he was stripped of his position in the Shiraz city council. In a similar vein, Mehdi Moghaddari, a member of the Isfahan city council, was banned from attending the council meetings and handed a one-year jail sentence for supporting Hajati and his efforts to secure the release of locked-up Baha’i citizens. The list goes on and includes a wide range of miscellaneous cases. 

“The continuing accumulation of unfulfilled demands over the past years, which partly manifested themselves in the widespread protests of January 2018, has pushed the Iranian society closer to the critical point of implosion . . . , and the ruling elite feel this powder keg under their feet and see no other way than to maximize sociopolitical control to prevent it from exploding,” Masoud Bastani, a Tehran-based pro-reform journalist and former political prisoner, told Inside Arabia

While securitization of nonconformity and repression of dissent have been long-term practices in the governance toolkit of the Islamic Republic, the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign has arguably strengthened the state’s resolve to persist with those practices. This is a far cry from the officially stated objective of the campaign, Tehran’s “change of behavior.” In point of fact, thanks to the US crippling economic punishment and explicit threats of war, Iran’s behavior has worsened, both at home and abroad.