Renewal of the sanctions on Iran in early November was the focal point of public discourse on Iranian social media. Although most of the responses reflected widespread disagreement with the policy that the US government has adopted towards Iran, it was also evident that the public is both concerned about the impact of the sanctions and skeptical of their effectiveness. The Iranian discourse likewise reflects opposing positions regarding the justification for sanctions, and the identity of the party ultimately responsible - the Iranian regime as a whole, led by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the government of Iran under the leadership of President Rouhani, or the US government.
Following the withdrawal of the United States from the P5+1 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement last May, in August the American government imposed a first round of sanctions. These included prohibitions on selling dollars, gold, precious metals, civilian aircraft and automobiles to the Islamic Republic. In early November, the US administration announced the imposition of another round of sanctions, focused on petroleum exports and the Iranian banking system. Eight countries (China, India, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Turkey, Italy and Greece) were granted six-month waivers from the sanctions against importing Iranian petroleum, but were asked to reduce the amount they import. The administration’s announcement made it clear that the sanctions did not apply to humanitarian goods including food, agricultural inputs, medicine and medical equipment. Senior government officials in Tehran attempted to minimize the importance of the sanctions, and claimed that their influence on Iran, which has experience in dealing with severe sanctions, would be limited.
Responses on social media to the return of the sanctions were mixed. On one hand, many users expressed concern about the intensification of the economic and social distress that Iranian citizens suffer, and cast doubt on the ability of the Iranian government to deal with the renewed sanctions, even mocking the senior officials who declared that sanctions would not have any impact (see pictures). On the other hand, others minimized their importance and noted the limited ability of the American government to enforce strict sanctions without complete international cooperation. Using the hashtag, #USisIsolated, some users claimed that the US government’s decision to excuse eight countries from the sanctions on importing Iranian petroleum, and also exempt shipments to Afghanistan from the port of Chabahar in southern Iran is evidence of the enforcement difficulties that President Trump faces.
Similar to the reactions when sanctions were imposed on Iran in the past, the reaction to the current round reflected widespread public opposition to the use of economic sanctions as a means for achieving political goals, and more broadly to the imposition of Western dictates on Iran. Many users emphasize that – contrary to claims by the American government that the sanctions were intended primarily to harm the Iranian regime – their severe effects are felt mostly by ordinary citizens who have significantly less ability to deal with them than do senior government officials and their associates. Users were particularly angered at the claim that, because the sanctions do not include humanitarian goods, they do not harm ordinary citizens. Responses accusing the American government of doing intentional harm to Iranian citizens were disseminated with the hashtags “Sanctions Target Me” and “Sanctions on Medicine” (#تحریم_دارو). For example, one user tweeted: “I feel the cost of living, I face difficulties in my daily life, medication is limited. The American sanctions are directed against me.” Another user noted cynically that if there had been Twitter during the Second World War, the US State Department would have tweeted that dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not directed against the citizens of Japan. Conversely, there are users who justify the claim of the American government that the sanctions do not include medicines and food, and accuse the Iranian regime of responsibility for the shortage of these products as the result of an intentional policy designed to marshal public support by using false propaganda.
Users were divided among themselves as to the party responsible for the situation created by the return of sanctions. Many users place responsibility for their trying circumstances on the American government, particularly President Trump. They pointed to the historical animosity of the United States towards Iran, and mentioned the dozens of sanctions that have been imposed on Iran since the Islamic Revolution, by both Democratic and Republican administrations. Users identified as supporters of the regime launched a campaign that attacked the United States and Israel, which supports the sanctions policy of President Trump, using the hashtags, “Death to the US” and “Death to Israel.” According to one user, the US government has embarked on psychological warfare against Iran, and if the Iranians can win that struggle, they will be able to overcome the sanctions.
Conversely, some users pointed an accusing finger at the Iranian government that, from their perspective, has not done enough in response to citizens’ distress. Among users identified with opponents of the regime, some of whom live abroad, there were voices calling to use the sanctions as a means for intensifying the struggle against the regime, in order to cause its collapse. One user called for Iranians to break out of their apathy lest they suffer the same fate as citizens in North Korea, Iraq and Venezuela who faced many years of economic distress and sanctions without taking action to bring down the regime that causes them great misery.
It is evident that users’ responses to the renewal of sanctions largely reflect their political positions. Thus, for example, users identified supporters of President Rouhani and the pragmatist movement criticized the decision of the conservative Guardian Council to oppose the decision by the Iranian parliament (Majlis) regarding money laundering and financing terrorism. The proposed legislation was intended to meet the international demand that Iran comply with compulsory regulations in these matters and was passed shortly before the second round of sanctions were imposed. Conversely, opponents of the president repeatedly accused him of adopting a conciliatory policy that led to the nuclear agreement, in which Iran agreed to painful concessions without receiving anything in return. Some expressed total opposition to any possibility of acquiescing to American demands. One warned that surrendering to US demands would leave Iran helpless in the face of other leaders in the future, and encourage foreign intervention in its domestic affairs. He noted that, as an Iranian student studying in Europe, he suffered from the collapse of the Iranian currency, and was very well aware of the sanctions’ impact. Despite this, he opposes capitulation because a person who loses his honor can no longer be considered a true person.
The return of sanctions re-ignited public discourse in Iran regarding foreign pressure on the country, its impact, and the identity of those responsible for the resultant decline in the domestic situation. This discourse, which is influenced by the political divide in the public, expresses disagreement with policies that are perceived as collective punishment and damage to national pride on one hand but also, on the other hand, concern about the high price inherent in the continued sanctions. It is too early to judge whether the Iranian regime will utilize the sanctions to recruit broad public support to oppose the West, as it did very successfully in the past, or whether these sanctions will increase the feeling of despair among the public and feed the wave of protests that Iran has experienced in the last year.