“Preservation of Nezam (‘the system’) is a momentous obligation”, said the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini. With these words, he set out the regime’s overarching policy, a necessity that is to be preserved at the expense of all else. In practice, this has meant supporting Shia armed groups across the Middle East and a heavy dose of domestic oppression, mainly through issuing death sentences against dissidents.

Now, however, President Trump’s maximum pressure campaign is putting this system under severe strain. It is achieving its aims in curbing some of Iran’s regional disruption through militias in Iraq and limiting the degree to which it can help finance the Houthi rebels in the Yemen. The killing of the leader of the Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, in January, was a bitter blow to the regime’s morale. And Israeli strikes at nuclear facilities inside the country have damaged the regime’s prestige as well as its infrastructure.

When this is added to the pressure from US economic sanctions, the regime is in a weak position in Iranian society. This position raises big questions among the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and among other hardline forces within the regime about the future of the system as it is currently constituted.

Amid all these ups and downs, the regime faces a significant challenge at home. Before Iran’s parliamentary election in March, I wrote for Radio Free Europe that the election was a prelude to tightening repression in the country. I explained that the regime is loathed domestically by many, riddled with corruption, moribund and incapable of finding real solutions to people’s concerns. Under these circumstances, ruthless oppression is the only option left.

But increasing the number of executions, arresting activists, and aiming to intimidate people will become counterproductive in the long run. In a rare show of unity among all Iranians, the hashtag “Don’t Execute” in Farsi trended worldwide, gaining about five million tweets and retweets. The hashtag was launched after the regime executed two political prisoners and a court confirmed the death penalty for three other protesters.

This is important – and it deserves to be noted. Domestic oppression in Iran always intensifies dramatically when the IRGC perceives that the world is passive or looking the other way. This indifference acted as a tacit “green light” for the massacre of protesters in November last year. In the absence of international outrage of the kind which accompanied the downing of a Ukrainian airlines flight in January 2020, such domestic repression continues along the same path it has always done. In January, the protests across Iran were in the international spotlight, but today the world is distracted by the coronavirus crisis.

There is a danger that the regime will feel empowered by such indifference now. In a statement last Friday, it warned protestors that: “The police force has an inherent and legal duty to deal decisively with these desperate moves.” Videos posted on social media from inside Iran on Thursday showed protesters chanting: “Fear not, fear not, we are in this together!”. Some even chanted slogans against top officials.

The UN Human Rights Council and UN General Assembly have condemned the regime for human rights abuses at least 65 times. Iran is among the few countries that the UN believes to be worsening its human rights standards and has accordingly appointed a special rapporteur to report on the situation on a yearly basis.

At the same time, Iran Human Rights Monitor (Iran HRM), a website dedicated to documenting these abuses in the country, has issued various reports on the Iranian regime’s gross human rights violations. On June 14 they reported that: “More than 100 inmates have been executed in Iran from January to mid-June 2020.”

When the regime continues to exploit the coronavirus crisis to clamp down on Iran’s protestors in such a manner, it is patently clear that the current UN human rights mechanisms do not work. The UN’s discussions with the mullahs have been fruitless and have not improved rights within the country.

The White House’s maximum pressure campaign restricts the regime’s destructive foreign adventurism and its sponsoring of terrorism abroad. Yet it must be combined with more sophisticated domestic pressure on the regime to stop executions and to provide support for popular protests taking place within Iran.

Of course, this hasn’t escaped the notice of several prominent figures in the United States. Former US Senator Joseph Lieberman said last Friday July 17: “The regime in Tehran still brutally suppresses human rights of their people, still steals their wealth”. He was addressing an online gathering held by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the exiled opposition to the regime based in France and Albania. This gathering hosted dozens of politicians and parliamentarians from across the world, including President Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Endorsing the NCRI’s leader, Maryam Rajavi, Lieberman stressed that supporting the group is in the interests of the American people and their security.

It is wrong to see the contest between the Iranian regime and its opponents as contained within Iran’s borders – it has been internationalised. This contest and its consequences run across borders and throughout the Middle East and the West. The NCRI’s online rally comes just two days after an Iranian diplomat and three others were ordered to stand trial in Belgium over their role in a failed plot to carry out a bomb attack at an NCRI gathering near Paris in 2018.

So long as the Iranian authorities feel that they can act with impunity not only within Iran but also in the heart of Europe, the level of oppression and the number of death sentences will increase as the IRGC does its best to save the system from domestic threats. It is more important than ever that the international community figures out a strategy to stop this alarming trend.

The writer is a former political prisoner, analyst and journalist from Iran, who is currently living in Glasgow, Scotland.