Trump’s 1st win gutted Iran’s moderates – will 2nd win push a military man into office?

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November 01, 2020

Trump’s 1st win gutted Iran’s moderates – will 2nd win push a military man into office?

By: Habib A. Abdolhossein for the Saker Blog

Habib is the editor-in-chief at PressTV, Iran’s English-language media organisation. He is an Iranian media expert and holds an M.A. in Media management from the University of Tehran.

With less than two days to the US election many Iranians are eagerly following the news, as they expect the outcome to impact their own futures.

The ultimate fate of the fragile 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and the future of ties between Tehran and Washington truly hinge on the outcome of the November 3 vote.

US President Donald Trump left the nuclear agreement in tatters by abandoning it in May 2018. He imposed the “strongest sanctions ever” against Iran as part his “maximum pressure” campaign aimed at forcing Iran to make compromises on crucial issues, including its nuclear activities and its highly-touted missile program.

The feeling in Tehran is that Tump’s re-election would mean the continuation of the “maximum pressure” campaign. In fact, the incumbent says if he wins the vote Iran will be forced to seek a deal “within the first month” of his second term. But as his hands are still wet with the blood of Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, he is not the desirable option for Iran to resume talks with.

Joe Biden’s victory, on the other hand, is expected to genuinely shift US policy on Iran. In an opinion article published by CNN, Biden said if elected president he would, “offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy”.

Biden’s presidency could be a game-changer for Iran’s reformists and moderate politicians who are vying for a political comeback by championing enhanced relations with the West.

“If Biden becomes U.S. president and rejoins the JCPOA, Iran will get a major achievement… But if Trump is re-elected, he will continue his maximum pressure against Iran and will pose new challenges for the Iranian economy,” confirms Dr. Ahmad Naghibzadeh, Tehran University professor and a member of Executives of Construction Party, a reformist party in Iran.

Reformists, who are already under fire for their support for President Hassan Rouhani’s administration, thus consider pursuing diplomacy with Biden as a more feasible way to promote their agenda.

“The new government should take advantage of the opportunities made after the U.S. elections to normalize ties with the world and tackle the sanctions…. Reformists view power as a tool for entering into negotiations with the world,” says Seyed Hossein Marashi, spokesman of the pro-reform Kargozaran Sazandegi Party.

However, the obvious reality is that such an attitude barely strikes a chord with the general public in Iran – geopolitical concerns have been put on the back burner after years of being a regularly-discussed topic. A majority of Iranians are instead obsessed with economy, which is cracking under sanctions and the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak.

Vote of no-confidence for Reformists

Back in 2013, Rouhani swept to a landslide, first-round victory as a centrist with a campaign of “prudence and hope”. Rouhani promised to rescue the economy by ending Iran’s international isolation. Seven years on, with the economy reeling from re-imposed US sanctions, those hopes have clearly been dashed. Many of his supporters are disappointed and even outraged with Rouhani’s “empty” promises of change.

Rouhani’s victories in the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections actually had less to do with his own popularity than with a tacit alliance with the reformists. Support from key reformist figures, including ex-President Mohammad Khatami, who had pinned hopes onto Rouhani’s pro-reform pledges, played a key role.

Many voters see too big a gap between Rouhani’s campaign rhetoric and the reality of his governance. Furthermore, his performance has also inflicted a heavy toll on the popularity of moderates who threw their weight behind him.

“Rouhani was not a reformist but the reformists put their social capital on sale by supporting him…” says former MP Nasser Qavami, who believes reformists have already lost the game by supporting a non-reformist.

Reformists and other moderates now have almost no selling point to entice even their own disillusioned supporters to vote. They can no longer hope to defeat the conservatives who have already conquered parliament.

The 2020 parliamentary elections were a litmus test for moderates: With the lowest turnout since the 1979 Islamic Revolution (admittedly affected by the pandemic), reformists didn’t just lose the vote but were annihilated: they dropped from a plurality of 121 seats to just 20 seats.

Trump or Biden? Yes, it does it make a difference for Iran

Whether the incumbent Donald Trump is re-elected or his Democratic rival Joe Biden wins the White House cannot help but decisively impact Iran’s immediate foreign policy strategy because, from the point of view of moderates, the two candidates have genuinely different approaches to Iran. This runs counter to the conservatives’ view, which is that an anti-Iran policy is the only policy possible from Washington no matter who is elected.

Seyed Mohammad Marandi, a key political analyst and a professor at Tehran University, believes Iran will be in a better position if Trump wins the U.S. election.

“An internationally isolated US under Trump will have little chance of gaining any serious accomplishment against Iran. But if Biden wins, he will act better in forging consensus against Iran,” Marandi asserts.

Despite his bellicose rhetoric, Trump has indicated that he doesn’t want a war with Iran, and he has employed military intervention far less than his recent predecessors. However, there is no guarantee he will follow this same strategy in his second term, worrying many.

“Since he doesn’t need voters’ support in his second term, the possibility of military confrontation with Iran increases,” suggests Afshar Soleimani, an Iranian political analyst.

With that in mind, a Trump victory may cause Iran to ultimately lean towards a more aggressive approach: ditching the landmark nuclear deal and boosting the controversial missile program. Much to the chagrin of the US, Iran is now allowed to export arms after a 13-year old ban was just lifted under the JCPOA. Houthis in Yemen and Lebanon’s Hezbollah top the list of allies whom Iran may supply with weapons.

The best option to enforce this type of a change to foreign policy could be a president who has served in the military.

Military-turned president in the making?

This should be viewed as a major strategic shift as the Islamic Republic has always had a civilian president.

“This position should be run by a strategic individual who has a better military and security expertise to take on a pivotal role in the strategic management of the country,” says Hossein Allahkaram, a conservative pundit and former IRGC officer.

There are mounting speculations that former defense minister and IRGC commander General Hossein Dehqan may run for president in the 2021 election. A senior military advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Dehqan has already served in the defense ministry in the Khatami and Rouhani administrations. He also headed the key Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs during Ahmadinejad’s first term.

But the vital question is whether Iranian society is ready to accept a military commander as president?

“This depends on the national strategy. A military president is not likely to win a landslide victory,” says reformist analyst Mohammad Sadeq Javadi Hessari. “This could be an option by conservatives to take advantage when low voter turnout is expected,” he crucially emphasizes.

Iranians have already indicated that they have great reverence for their military commanders – millions turned out in nationwide funerals and commemorations after Soleimani was killed.

For many Iranians Trump’s re-election means more tensions with the US are certain. With low voter turnout expected, a soldier-turned president could be an option unless Washington’s “maximum pressure” stops before Iran’s June 18th presidential vote.

Such a choice could even work with Biden as president: It could pressure the White House to not set impossible preconditions for returning to the JCPOA, or not attempt to keep the sanctions in place as leverage.

What’s certain is that the new US president will have little chance to negotiate a new deal with outgoing Iranian president Rouhani, whose term ends in almost eight months.

Iranians will certainly be more demanding should they enter any talks with US again. They have lost their top general Soleimani and incurred serious damages under Trump-era sanctions. They expect US compensation to be offered just to resume talks.

Opening the window of diplomacy seems to be more conceivable with Biden than Trump. The victor would be wise to remember that resistance is expected to remain an option for Iran – as usual – regardless of who is finally elected in the United States.

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