Iran ponders how to deal with new US president
Over recent months, Iran has, at least publicly, pursued a wait-and-see policy regarding the outcome of the US presidential election.
The choice was between either a second term for President Donald Trump — which Tehran did not even want to think of — or a triumph for Joe Biden, the vice president under Barack Obama, during whose tenure relations between Washington and Tehran improved, stopping just short of full normalization, which had a significantly positive impact on the Iranian regime.
Now, the vision is substantially clearer. Democrat Biden has been unofficially declared the winner of this month’s vote. However, President Trump continues to contest the result of the election.
Official statements coming out of Iran have been consistent with the narrative of the supreme leader. According to the official narrative, Iran’s regime is not interested in the outcome of the US election, which it insists is an internal American affair. The Iranian regime has also reiterated there is no difference, from their viewpoint, between Trump and Biden, although some officials, including ambassador to London Hamid Baeidinejad, have publicly celebrated Trump’s defeat, deeming this a triumph for Iran and a blow to its enemies.
Despite this official narrative, most Iranian newspapers extensively discussed the US election on their front pages. This curiosity was in stark contrast to the official narrative, which attempted to suggest apathy and indifference toward the vote and the outcome.
This attention paid to the election by the Iranian state-approved press, which publishes nothing without the regime’s approval, shows that, despite Tehran’s official narrative, it had in fact been eagerly awaiting the end of President Trump’s term of office and the Democratic Party’s return to power. It should also be remembered that the new president-elect, as Obama’s former vice president, has access to many details of the Iran-US negotiations that took place between 2013 and the end of Obama’s time in the White House.
Despite the Iranian regime’s claim that there is no difference between the two US parties, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has in the past said that he and Biden maintain a strong friendship. Besides, since the preliminary results of the US election began to emerge, the price of gold in Iran declined and the Iranian currency restored some of its value against foreign currencies. These two economic indicators confirm that the US election impacted Iran more than any other country.
After Biden was declared the winner, Abbas Mousavi, a former spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry and Iran’s current ambassador to Azerbaijan, posted on Twitter: “Just as Iran saw no difference between Carter and Reagan, Clinton and Bush and between Obama and Trump, the status quo does not represent any difference for Iran either. It is likely that Joe Biden will possibly be the same as his predecessors. But Iran should have its own Joe Biden and reach the peak of pride via the mixture of belief, vigor and zeal.” Mousavi was subsequently prompted to delete this tweet due to vast criticism, along with the mockery, derision and condemnation of such a tweet being posted by someone who is supposedly a high-ranking Iranian diplomat.
Despite the varying forecasts about how Iran will deal with President-elect Biden, there is no doubt there are divergent viewpoints in Iran regarding the best mechanism to pursue. President Hassan Rouhani’s government believes it is necessary to open early channels of communication with Biden, making some gains at home for the so-called reformist/moderate movement before the end of Rouhani’s presidential term. Meanwhile, the fundamentalists want to wait until Biden’s position on Iran becomes clearer, rather than rushing to embrace him — although such a policy could be potentially damaging for Iran’s hopes of making greater gains.
One should not rule out the possibility that the Iranian regime will attempt to test the red lines set by the new president.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
In addition to their stance on Biden, the fundamentalists also seek to weaken their opponents domestically with the aim of taking complete control of the state’s institutions. This difference between the reformists/moderates and the fundamentalists is solely related to Iranian domestic policy, since foreign policy and security-related issues rest wholly with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. I believe Khamenei’s position is closer to that of the fundamentalists than the position adopted by Rouhani’s moderate government and the political blocs backing it.
One should not rule out the possibility that the Iranian regime will attempt to test the red lines set by the new president, especially when it comes to Tehran’s regional behavior and support for terrorist and sectarian militias and groups in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Iran will no doubt continue to provide covert support for such groups, awaiting a response from the US.
In the period before the new US administration takes any decisions on the country’s unilateral sanctions on Tehran — such as on the sale of oil and petrochemical derivatives or on the Iranian financial and banking sectors — Iran will continue to circumvent them. The regime will seek to gauge the seriousness of the new US administration’s approach to implementing these sanctions before arriving at the phase of negotiations between Washington and Tehran.
Moreover, Tehran will continue its relations with the European countries that are supportive of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in an effort to convince the new US administration to immediately return to the 2015 nuclear deal and lift the unilateral American sanctions. Tehran could raise the level of its demands by seeking to obtain compensation from Washington for the damage it incurred following the US’ unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Tehran is fully aware that obtaining compensation from the US would be virtually impossible, but issuing such a demand would strengthen its negotiating position and prove a face-saving exercise with the public at home.
To conclude, Iran is totally convinced that reversing the consequences of the Trump administration’s policies in the region will be extremely difficult. Also, the change in the political scene in the region, with some Arab countries normalizing relations with Israel, is not in the interest of the Iranian regime’s expansionist project. The increased awareness of the Arab region’s peoples, especially the Shiite communities in Iraq and Lebanon, and their negative position toward Iran may force Tehran to reconsider the wisdom of retaining some of its previous gains, at least until it restores its prestige and reshapes its image at home and overseas.
Despite all the aforementioned points, however, Tehran will not cease its efforts and will continue knocking on various doors as it seeks to achieve some of its objectives, or at least alleviate the economic and political pressures from which it is currently suffering. If Iran truly wishes peace and good ties with its Arab neighbors, it should abandon its worn-out, repetitive and tedious narrative linking the positions of the region’s countries with those of the US and other powers.
The problem with Iran lies in its hostile behavior toward its neighbors, its support for sectarian militias and terrorism, and how it conceals this policy behind deceptive statements that oppose the reality on the ground. If Iran continues to pursue its current approach, which the region’s countries know all too well and have become all too familiar with due to Tehran’s endless repetition, the problem will remain unresolved regardless of who sits in the White House.
• Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami