On Nov. 4, 2018, a day before the United States reimposed sanctions on Iran, reactions on Iranian social media were divided between criticism of the Islamic regime and various versions of the sentiment “Down with the USA.” In the real world, rallies were organized in “struggle against World Arrogance”—i.e., against the West, specifically the United States.
This hostility to “World Arrogance” was not suddenly induced by the reimposition of sanctions. In fact, in November 2017, Reuters reported that since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) Iran deal was signed in July 2015, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) had arrested at least 30 dual nationals. This is more than double the rate of dual-national arrests before the signing of the JCPOA. Most dual nationals were arrested when they visited Iran on a business or family trip and faced prolonged solitary confinement and interrogations, were denied basic visitation rights, and were usually sentenced—without due process—to long imprisonment or even death, on charges related to national security and espionage.
The Islamic Republic negotiated and signed the JCPOA because the economic sanctions were suffocating the people, and the regime needed to give them some hope. However, regime hard-liners worried that a signed agreement with the West would signal a new cultural openness, leading to an increased expectation for human rights and consumption of Western culture, and thereby strengthening moderate voices and weakening the regime. This was true to some extent; Western investment is vital to Iran’s economy. People, especially the younger generation, embrace Western cultural influence, from Western-style malls and fast food restaurants, to underground rock concerts and parties with dancing and alcohol. Social media activity has proliferated, including fashion Instagram accounts and pages that defy the Islamic dress code.