It was reported on Thursday that a number of top Iranian officials had publicly downplayed the significance of the upcoming U.S. presidential election. Their comments on the subject tend to evoke the idea that American leaders are inherently anti-Iranian and committed to the goal of imperial influence and regime change that has never been acknowledged by any major policymaker, not even President Donald Trump.
Some of Iran’s critics have openly lamented that several close politicians to the National Council of Resistance of Iran may have helped to shape the “maximum pressure” strategy. There is some view considers this policy as contributing to the conditions that might lead to a democratic revolution inside Iran. But that influence did little to move the needle toward outright endorsement of regime change or even formal acknowledgment of the Resistance movement that is actively pushing for that outcome.
Nonetheless, Iran’s Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf declared without evidence in September, “America has a deep-rooted enmity against the Iranian nation and whether Trump is elected or Biden, it will not have any impact on the U.S. main policy to strike the Iranian nation.”
Interestingly, the reports that cited this quotation on Thursday also pointed out that Ghalibaf’s remarks stood in contrast to what most Iranians were saying when asked about the U.S. election, which is scheduled for Tuesday but may lack an official outcome for several days as states tabulate the record numbers of early and absentee ballots brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. Polling by one Iranian state-owned entity determined that 55 percent of people expect that the outcome of the election will affect Iran “a lot.” At the same time, roughly half of the population seems to anticipate that Trump will win.
It’s not immediately clear where these attitudes come from, and reports in global media draw no real conclusions about the specific effects that Iranians anticipate from each electoral outcome. On the former point, one possibility is that the aforementioned statements from Iranian officials have left the public with the impression that Trump’s comparatively belligerent approach to Iran policy is more representative of underlying trends in the U.S. But on the other hand, the Iranian people do not generally look to Iranian state media or to regime officials for such insights – a fact that was even acknowledged by a hardline Iranian think tank, Asra, in a report early this year.
Although most foreign media outlets are banned in the Islamic Republic, many citizens defy those bans by using virtual private networks to circumvent internet blocks. That being the case, Iranian attitudes about the U.S. election may see greater influence from those sources’ reporting on statements from American politicians and commentators, including the presidential candidates themselves.
President Trump has been very clear about his expectations in the event of his reelection. He reportedly believes that the Iranian regime is holding out hope for victory by his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden and that this prospect is the sole reason why the regime hasn’t capitulated to “maximum pressure” by striking a new agreement with the U.S. already. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama spearheaded nuclear negotiations that led to a seven-party deal which went into effect in January 2016. But roughly two and a half years later, Trump pulled the U.S. out, promising to pursue an alternative that would much more seriously impede Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon while also limiting its interventionism and malign activities in the surrounding region.
So far, Tehran has flatly refused to negotiate with the U.S., while the other participants in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action have remained committed to the deal even as Iran ceased compliance in reaction to the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions. As a result of this non-compliance, experts now estimated that Iran’s “breakout time” for a nuclear weapon has shrunk from about one year to as little as three months.
For their part, Iranian officials are trying to use the reduced breakout time as leverage for convincing the deal’s European signatories – Britain, France, and Germany – to implement countermeasures that might reduce the impact of U.S. sanctions. But in doing so, the Iranians have put the deal at an increased risk of collapse. The three European nations even went so far as to trigger a dispute resolution mechanism earlier this year in response to Iranian violations.
Tehran’s risky strategy arguably lends credence to the U.S. administration’s assessment of the situation. Iran’s economy is in awful shape and that the government will eventually be forced to reach out for some sort of relief in order to forestall total collapse. This, he has explicitly stated, could happen immediately after Trump is sworn in for his second term, at which point the White House would push for a much more restrictive alternative to the JCPOA.
Biden has been rather less specific about what he expects from Iran in the event of his election. But in debates and media interviews, he has given the impression that the hoped-for outcome is broadly similar, though it would be reached by many different means. As Biden was vice president when the JCPOA was negotiated, it is little surprise that he has defended the deal as largely serving its purpose up until the U.S. withdrawal. Yet he has also seemingly embraced the notion that it is imperfect and could be strengthened after talks between the two nations reopen.
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Biden’s vision for that reopening apparently involves the U.S. resuming participation in the JCPOA as written, but only on the condition that Iran already resumes full compliance. Only then would a Biden White House be expected to urge a re-examination of the agreement’s terms, in partnership with traditional allies who have been at odds with the Trump administration on this matter for more than two years.
In both Iran and the U.S., expectations about the impact of each potential outcome depend upon one’s assessment of how successful or unsuccessful the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy has been so far. Biden’s plan for re-engagement might make sense both to Americans and to ordinary Iranians if they believe that Tehran can still hold out for additional months or years in the face of that pressure. But for those who agree that the regime is near its breaking point, changing course in January would surely seem foolish.
Recently, Alireza Miryousefi, the spokesperson for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, alleged that “the U.S.’s addiction to sanctions has not paid off” and that “the U.S. has out-sanctioned itself.”
Miryousefi’s comments were accompanied by ridicule for the latest measures imposed by the U.S. Treasury Department, namely the designation of the Iranian Oil Ministry, the National Iranian Oil Company, and the National Iranian Tanker Company as valid targets for counterterrorism sanctions. That designation stems from allegations that the three companies have been instrumental in channeling Iran’s petroleum revenue into the hands of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ foreign special operations division, the Quds Force. However, the sanctions are also redundant in practice, as the three entities had already been fully sanctioned in accordance with the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA.
These latest sanctions are not the first to be deemed largely ornamental after being imposed by the Trump administration. But this is not to say that the symbolic value of those sanctions is insignificant. With each new designation, the Trump administration reiterates its commitment to enforcing existing sanctions to the fullest extent possible. And this potentially an important signal to the roughly 50 percent of Iranians who expect Trump to win reelections. That segment of the population is sure to extensively overlap with the portion of the population that supports Iran’s pro-democracy Resistance movement, and thus supports heavy sanctions on the clerical regime.