For Iran 2018 was a year marked by real threats from within and perceived threats from outside coupled with an economic crisis highlighted by a constantly rising double-digit inflation, unemployment, widespread financial corruption, mismanagement, and lack of trust in the country's inefficient banking system. Meanwhile, a chronic unresolved foreign policy crisis kept the nation on the edge while the government gave the lion's share of resources to military forces that kept the region volatile at the expense of Iranians' welfare and peace of mind.
Unrest, Domestic Politics -- 2018 started in Iran one week into a major political unrest that shook the country for several weeks. Protest demonstrations started in Mashad in the last week of December and continued well into January. Demonstrations first appeared to be motivated by the dissatisfaction of the lower strata of society with economic injustice and discrimination, but later deeper political dissatisfaction with the regime's performance surfaced in protests that soon spread to over 100 cities.
Demonstrators challenged the Islamic Republics legitimacy and questioned its regional ambitions calling on the government to stop wasting the nation's resources in Syria, Yemen and Palestinian territories. In an unprecedented move, some in Mashad and Qom, two of Iran's major religious centers, chanted slogans for regime change and demanded a return to monarchy.
As widespread demonstrations de-escalated by the arrest of at least 5,000 people, various groups including dervishes, teachers, workers, truckers, and university students as well as human rights activists including women continued smaller scale protests against discrimination and injustice.
Labor unrest continued throughout the year, with heavy machine manufacturing workers in Arak, steel workers in Ahvaz and Sugar mill workers in Haft Tappeh grabbing more international attention. Some of the grievances including unpaid wages remained unresolved by the end of the year.
The mass unrest at the beginning of the year continued to affect nearly all domestic political developments throughout 2018. These included the empowerment of security forces and clerical establishments as the two pillars that protected the regime against change and dissent. Both the IRGC and hardline clerics and those they inspired or controlled in parliament and other parts of the government, resisted any move towards domestic reform and opening up to the international community. The continuing resistance against the bills for joining international conventions against money laundering and funding terrorism are part of the attempts to keep Iran away from the international community at the price of leaving Tehran alone in countering U.S. sanctions.
Another characteristic of Iran's domestic politics in 2018 was Khamenei's attempt to micromanage all the three branches of the government. He intervened in the parliamentary processes by communicating messages that alerted MPs to his views on matters that were being put to vote in parliament. It always matters what MPs think Khamenei's views are about key bills such as those relating to FATF and CFT and this sometimes causes confusion as politicians try to pretend they know about Khamenei's views on any matter and try to rally others behind them. The latest incidents of Khamenei's intervention in the executive affairs were his attempt to modify the budget bill and to dictate monetary policies to the Central Bank.
Security, Military, Regional Ambitions -- While Iranian military commanders boasted about Tehran's military might and the supremacy of Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf and Iran's success in keeping threats at bay, several security incidents particularly in the volatile areas of southwest and southeast of the country undermined such claims. Iranian border guards were taken hostage by insurgents in Baluchistan at least twice and many of the hostages still remained unreleased by the end of the year.
The most significant signs of Iran's vulnerability to attacks became evident during an attack on a military parade in Ahvaz in the province of Khuzestan on 22 September and the car bomb attack on a police headquarters in Chabahar in the province of Sistan and Baluchestan in November. In both cases local ethnic minorities subsequently came under attack by Iran's security forces although ISIS claimed responsibility for the Ahvaz attack and many observers, some in the Iranian government, said that the Chabahar attack could have also been inspired by Iran's regional political rivals.
In the wake of the attacks, Iran's security forces also accused each other of negligence, and hardliners controlling the Shiite holy shrine in Mashad set up a special force to ward off attacks on the shrine and pilgrims in a clear sign of lack of trust in the security forces. Meanwhile, experts said although Iran's record in combatting attacks was positive before this year’s incidents, there is no guarantee similar attacks will not reoccur in the future.
Iranian military commanders insisted now and again that they would shut the strategic strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and stop the flow of oil to world markets if Iran's interests were not served, but the country's top officials distanced themselves from such provocative remarks. However, once the U.S. reimposed sanctions against Tehran President Hassan Rouhani said angrily that not only Iran would shut down Hormuz but there were many other straits its forces could close down. Rouhani's comment was quickly backed by Khamenei and his top military commanders including Qods Force Commander Qasem Soleimani.
Later on, when Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen fired missiles at Saudi oil tankers an Iranian commander said IRGC had asked Houthis to launch the attack. Nevertheless, as the situation became increasingly tense and led to a temporary halt in the shipment of oil from Saudi Arabia, the IRGC said the commander was no longer working with the revolutionary guards and the views expressed by him were his own.
In the meantime, as Israel repeatedly attacked bases held by Iranian forces in Syria, several rounds of talks between Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Russian leader Vladimir Putin apparently led to a de-escalation of Iranian activity in Syria, although Tel Aviv is adamant that Iran is still following its violent regional ambitions, but it may have changed its tactics. Towards the end of the year, As Israel attacked Hezbollah tunnels in southern Lebanon, Israeli officials said that Iran was now focusing on Lebanon as a place where it can direct operations against Israel. Iranians have mainly kept silent about Israeli claims.
Iran's involvement in Yemen also continued until late 2018, when signs appeared that both Iran and Saudi Arabia perhaps are inclined to end their proxy war against each other. The Yemeni peace talks later in Stockholm, revealed that guesses about de-escalation in Yemen were true, partly because of the international concern for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and partly thanks to Saudi Arabia and Iran's domestic problems that distracted them from their involvement in Yemen.
In spite of these developments, the U.S. kept up the pressure and the head of State Department's Iran Action Group in late November spoke about Iranian weapons in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan while some of these weapons were put on display at the Pentagon.
Iran, U.S. and JCPOA – After months of calling on Iran to negotiate about its regional role, missile program as well as discuss the terms of its nuclear agreement with the West, U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran on May 8, and announced the reimposition of sanctions against Iran.
In early August, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani dismissed a U.S. call for talks hours before Washington was due to impose new sanctions. Washington's position was that the only way Iran could avert the sanctions would be to agree to new negotiations to abandon its missile and nuclear programs.
In late September the State Department released an extensive report on the scope of the Iranian regime's "destructive behavior" at home and abroad on the eve of the Islamic Revolution's 40th anniversary.
A second round of U.S. sanctions targeting Iran's oil exports, shipping and banking operations started on November 4. The sanctions badly affected Iran's economy which was already in a deep crisis with high inflation, unemployment and widespread corruption.
The report Outlaw Regime: A Chronicle of Iran's Destructive Activities published by the U.S. Department of State detailed Iran's support for terrorism, its missile program, illicit financial activities in Iran, threat to maritime security, threat to cybersecurity, the abuse of human rights in Iran and environmental exploitation.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained President Donald Trump's Iran policy, arguing that "the Islamic Republic of Iran is not a normal state," adding that "Normal states do not attack embassies and military installations in peacetime, fuel terrorist proxies and militias, serve as a sanctuary for terrorists, call for the destruction of Israel and threaten other countries, aid brutal dictators such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, proliferate missile technology to dangerous proxies, conduct covert assassinations in other countries and hold hostage citizens of foreign nations."
Iran seems to have other ideas about it relations with the United States. Iranian analyst Ali Afshari says that Khamenei perceives a threat from Trump and has pinned his hope to his defeat in the 2020 elections. Khamenei believes that Trump in his last year in office will be too busy with the elections, but he will have enough time in 2019 to deal a hard blow against Khamenei's Islamic Republic.
Human Rights -- Throughout the year human right was a big issue in Iran. The year that started with the death of environmentalist Kavous Seyed Emami in custody ended with the demise of a prisoner in Qom, Vahid Sayyadi Nasiri, after 60 days of hunger strike in protest to violation of his rights. Iranian authorities attempted to portray Seyed Emami's death as suicide and categorically denied Nasiri's presence in prison.
Nasiri's death in custody was condemned by the U.S. State Department and Iran was widely condemned by the international community over Seyed Emami's death.
In between the two dramatic deaths, dervishes minding their own business, women protesting against compulsory hijab, workers demanding their unpaid wages, dual nationals visiting their ailing parents, journalists exposing corruption and hypocrisy, businessmen trying to win bread in a chaotic market and many others were jailed, often tortured and at times executed, and the hard-line-dominated judiciary system was the country's biggest law-breaker. Activists including former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad protested violations of existing laws by the judiciary. During the year Ahmadinejad also wrote several letters criticizing Khamenei and Rouhani for the way they run the country.
In its annual report, London-based human rights watchdog Amnesty International pointed out “systematic unfair trials,” as well as “floggings, amputations, and other cruel punishments carried out in Iran” as examples of human rights violations by the Tehran regime. The report also noted that, during the past year, “Hundreds of people were executed, some in public, and thousands remained on death row,” adding that those executed in Iran included “people who were under the age of 18 at the time of the crime.”
Media Freedom – The Islamic Republic of Iran continued to limit media freedom throughout 2018, as well as jailing journalists. As one example of harsh and disproportionate punishment of journalists, Hengameh Shahidi was sentenced to 12 years and nine months in prison for criticizing Judiciary head Sadeq Amoli Larijani.
The official IRNA news agency reported that Shahidi's sentence was based on unspecified charges. "Given the confidentiality of the proceedings and the security nature of the case I cannot disclose details about the court's verdict," her lawyer Mostafa Turk Hamedani told IRNA.
Following the unrest at the beginning of the year, the authorities concluded that popular messaging app Telegram was used for organizing the demonstrations. Subsequently the government banned Telegram. Nevertheless, millions of users continue to use the messaging service through VPNs. In October, government organizations that had left the service following the ban were observed to return to the platform once again. Ironically, Iran's telecommunications minister Mohammad Javad Jahromi and Fars News Agency, a staunch critic of Telegram were among those who returned to the messaging platform.
In the meantime, homegrown messaging services endorsed by the government and security services were more or less ignored by users and in November, the Ministry of Telecommunications announced that it will stop funding such projects. Official statistics put the number of Telegram users in Iran at over 40 million.
However, except Instagram, other social media platforms remain banned in Iran although millions of Iranians including officials such as the Supreme Leader himself and President Rouhani are still actively using them. In December, some hardline clerics also called for banning Instagram.
Meanwhile criticism of biased coverage of news on national TV, and censorship of the press continued throughout the year while popularity of both government-controlled print media and the state TV continued to decline. Over the years, Iran's state TV changed the focus of its programming from information dissemination and entertainment to one of political brainwashing, garnering support for the regime inside Iran and acting as a tool for disinformation around the globe. Dropping circulation of national newspapers was a possible consequence of censorship.
Endgame or Showdown-- As it is the characteristic nature of Iranian politics, by the end of the year, the sense of confusion and chaos was still far from over. The fate of the four bills about countering money laundering and funding terrorism required by FATF were not clear. Also not made quite clear were the fate of the motion for impeachment of foreign minister Zarif and questioning parliament speaker Ali Larijani. Similalry, EU's promise to help Iran circumvent U.S. sanctions was still just a promise.
While there was no sign of Iran's readiness to enter a dialogue with the United States, the Islamic Republic's leader was still worried about his arch enemy's "deception." The empowerment and emboldening of the opposition contributed to his perception of a clear and present threat to his regime. Khamenei warned the nation that a showdown was imminent, reminding that he has had a very good summer although America had vowed to bring the regime to its knees during those hot days. However, he told Iranians to be on the lookout as Washington might have plans for 2019: reminiscent of a proverbial verse from Iran’s pre-Islamic epic, the Book of Kings (Shahnameh): "The night's still young and pregnant. Wait to see what it bears at dawn."