While protesters initially took to the streets to express outrage over high unemployment and currency devaluation, the demonstrations quickly took on a political tone, with calls for the regime’s ouster. Throughout the year, Iranians expressed frustration with hardline and moderate politicians alike.
Tehran blamed the West, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) and the People’s Mojahedin of Iran (MEK) for the protests. But people did not buy such narratives, instead blaming the regime, which resorted to brute force to suppress the uprising.
The human rights situation deteriorated in 2018, according to several watchdogs. Human Rights Monitor reported an increase in executions, including 32 hangings in less than a month, as the regime tries desperately to contain the growing unrest. Human rights groups also report arbitrary murders, deaths in custody, inhumane treatment and appalling prison conditions.
On the international arena, one of the biggest blows to the regime stemmed from US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal. Washington re-imposed economic sanctions that hit Iran’s energy and banking sectors.
To salvage the nuclear deal for its financial gain, Tehran tried to pit the EU against the US, but the renewed sanctions exacerbated the crisis facing the regime. Many foreign firms became reluctant to invest in Iran, and some pulled out altogether. Iran’s currency, the rial, lost nearly 400 percent of its value and is currently trading at more than 100,000 to the dollar.
Amid a more united Arab front, the Trump administration adopted a tougher stance against Tehran’s military adventurism and belligerence. Another significant development was the regime’s increasing attacks in Europe despite the EU appeasing it and trying to save the nuclear deal.
Terrorist plots against the MEK in Albania, France, the US and Denmark were foiled in March, June, August and September, respectively. An Iranian diplomat was jailed in Belgium, three were expelled from France and the Netherlands, and the terrorist arrested in Denmark was exposed as closely linked to the Iranian ambassador in Norway.
The regime continued its cyberattacks against its rivals, and was caught playing a major role in misinformation campaigns and propagating fake news. Tehran also employed Iranians posing as journalists to do the bidding of the Ministry of Intelligence and Security.
In September, Facebook closed 652 accounts and Twitter closed 770 accounts linked to the regime, declaring them as fake and disseminating fake news. Some of them were used to smear the Iranian opposition.
In 2019, Tehran will likely continue to try to drive a wedge between the US and Europe, while marching onward in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere. Domestic protests, strikes and clashes will most likely continue nationwide, as demonstrators have proven willing to push back against repression. Tehran’s violent suppression and misinformation will only energize the protesters.
If the regime does not address people’s grievances, the next uprising could topple the theocracy and achieve Iranians’ long-sought dream of democracy. If the US and its European and Gulf allies present a united front against Tehran and support the Iranian people and opposition, the increased pressure could threaten the regime’s hold on power unless it moderates its domestic and foreign policies.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh