Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and US President Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former US president Donald Trump were bitter rivals. Photo: Reuters

With less than two weeks to the US presidential election, Iranians, like much of the world, are carefully watching the heated contest between the incumbent Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden, who has opened up significant leads in the pre-election polls and many observers say has the potential to make the Republican president a one-termer.

Although foreign policy is not usually a determining factor in how the American people elect politicians, the outcome of the November 3 ballot will have reverberations beyond the US borders, and America’s friends and foes have already begun contemplating the contours of their future relations with the United States under the two possible scenarios: Trump winning another ticket to the Oval Office or being dislodged by Biden.

Whatever the result, the US president will have a challenging task in framing a coherent policy on the Middle East, and particularly Iran. The “maximum pressure” campaign has hit rock bottom, failing to persuade the Iranian government to come back to the bargaining table, and its only success has been pulverizing the livelihoods of ordinary Iranian citizens.

If Trump wins, experts warn that an end to the tensions between Tehran and Washington may not be in the cards and an escalation should be expected. With Joe Biden replacing Trump, a new beginning may be imminent.

Asia Times spoke to Eric Lob (pictured at left), an associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Florida International University about the likely scenarios around the prospect of Iran-US relations after the November 3 polls and Iran’s approach to reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Professor Lob is an expert on Iran-US relations and author of the 2020 book Iran’s Reconstruction Jihad: Rural Development and Regime Consolidation after 1979.

Kourosh Ziabari: Iran’s Supreme Leader is fiercely anti-American. Even when he permitted the Rouhani administration to engage in talks with the United States that resulted in the JCPOA, he was clearly reluctant to do so, and after President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal, he called the talks fruitless and termed the JCPOA an absolute failure. Do you think he will give the green light to President Hassan Rouhani or his successor to negotiate with the US once more if Trump is replaced by Joe Biden in the November election?

Eric Lob: From the standpoint of ideology and identity, the Iranian Revolution and the Islamic Republic were and are based on anti-imperialism and anti-Americanism, and asserting Iran’s agency and autonomy in the face of those forces. To this day, these sentiments run deep among segments of the population, and influence the perceptions, decisions, and actions of the Supreme Leader and other elites.

Through its statements and policies, the current US administration has reinforced these sentiments and perceptions, and aggravated bilateral tensions.

Since the Revolution, Iranian elites have disagreed on the nature and level of engagement with the United States, with some elites opposed and others in favor, particularly pragmatic and moderate prime ministers and presidents with less power and authority than the Supreme Leader.

Following trials and errors like post-9/11 Afghanistan, the “axis of evil,” and nuclear negotiations, the Supreme Leader and other elites have understandably remained distrustful of US intentions. After 2013, the Supreme Leader had the luxury of reticently allowing President Rouhani to retest the waters of Iranian engagement and negotiation with the United States while blaming him for their ultimate failure ex post facto.

With a defeated Mr Rouhani approaching the end of his term and conservative elites likely controlling both the parliament and presidency next year, it is difficult to fathom the Supreme Leader greenlighting him or his successor to re-engage the United States and renegotiate the JCPOA.

The calculus of the Supreme Leader and future Iranian president would partially depend on the outcome of the US election in November. If Mr Biden were elected president, the Supreme Leader and Mr Rouhani’s successor may remain rhetorically hostile toward the United States while tacitly engaging it to see if doing so could help alleviate any of the military and economic pressure the Islamic Republic currently confronts.          

KZ: To what extent do you think the assassination of Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani by the United States has made the renewal of Iran-US talks unlikely? Would it be possible for any Iranian administration to get involved in dialogue with the US in the intense anti-American atmosphere currently dominating Iran?

EL: Despite the Trump administration’s campaign of maximum pressure and its assassination of Commander Soleimani, the possibility of Iran-US talks still exists. During his campaign, Mr Biden has expressed his intent to return to the JCPOA or renegotiate it and would have the political capital to do so given the American public’s fatigue with the United States’ endless wars in the Middle East.

President Trump had campaigned on a promise of ending these wars but was unable to do so in part due to his opposition towards the JCPOA. This opposition has heightened Iran-US tensions in the region and made it more difficult to resolve protracted and costly conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

The Iranians who celebrated in the streets when the JCPOA was signed and who suffer daily from the economic sanctions and current pandemic would ostensibly welcome Iran-US dialogue. At the same time and as is currently the case with President Trump’s hawkish cabinet and base, this dialogue could ultimately be undermined by hardline elites and constituents in the Islamic Republic.

The lack of alignment and synchronization between Iranian and US elections and governments, combined with the static presence of Iran’s tutelary institutions and interference, have contributed to a vicious cycle in Iran-US relations.

KZ: Iran’s presidential election will be held next year. It is likely that a conservative politician or an IRGC commander will replaces the moderate Hassan Rouhani. Will things between Tehran and Washington escalate to a critical point under such an administration, considering that the parliament has already been taken over by hardliners? Could the combination of a hardline-dominated parliament and an ultra-conservative president drag Iran into a war with the United States?

EL: If President Trump were re-elected and an Iranian hardliner became president, then Iran-US tensions would likely continue to escalate.

Mr Trump possesses delusions of grandeur as the consummate dealmaker, as well as authoritarian and anti-systemic aspirations to emulate, embrace, and engage foreign autocrats and US adversaries. He attempted to meet with Mr Rouhani, but was rebuffed by him and stymied by hawkish cabinet members.

A Biden presidency would probably mitigate an escalation of Iran-US tensions exacerbated by the election of an ultra-conservative Iranian president. That being said, and even with such a president, keeping in mind that the Supreme Leader is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Iran would probably continue to attempt to avoid a direct military confrontation with a conventionally superior foe like the United States.

For Iranian hardliners and similar to those in the US, the payoff of persistent Iran-US tensions is appealing to an ideological base and furthering political and commercial interests. On both sides, the continuation and intensification of conflict have created and perpetuated perverse incentives for certain elites and citizens.

The problem with maintaining the status quo of continued asymmetric and covert conflict, military brinkmanship, and political posturing without opening diplomatic channels is that it could lead to strategic and tactical misperceptions and miscalculations. They in turn could unintentionally ignite a direct conventional confrontation of the type that nearly occurred in June 2019 and January 2020. 

KZ: In the event Joe Biden wins the November polls and goes to the White House, do you think he will re-enter the JCPOA or will call for a new, broader agreement? Iran has already indicated that it will not negotiate for a new deal. In what ways would Biden’s Iran strategy differ from Trump’s?

EL: During his campaign, Joe Biden has stated he would return to the JCPOA if elected president, without specifying the details. It remains unclear whether Mr Biden intends to return to the JCPOA in its current form or whether he would attempt to expand it to encompass other issues, including Iran’s regional activities and ballistic-missile program.

Having the United States return to the JCPOA and keep it intact would be enough of a challenge for Mr Biden and his administration given the tensions and distrust that have intensified between Iran and the United States since 2016.

Despite its flaws, the JCPOA could serve as a stepping-stone and gateway for the United States to constructively engage Iran on other issues beyond the nuclear file.

However, this endeavor would be difficult given that Iran’s regional proxies and missile program constitute a core component of its national security doctrine and its ability to maintain strategic depth against the United States and its regional partners, especially without substantive security guarantees or a regional security framework. 

If elected president, Mr Biden would likely deviate from his predecessor’s “maximum pressure” campaign and emulate [former president Barack] Obama’s approach by crafting an Iran policy that once again relies on sticks and carrots rather than exclusively coercion in the form of military action and economic sanctions.

For better or worse, Mr Biden and his administration would probably use sanctions as a means of attempting to coax the Iranians back to the negotiating table and attempt to assert leverage over them rather than pursuing a misguided strategy of regime change. Mr Trump had allegedly attempted to do the same but was thwarted by domestic hawks and regional partners.

The Biden administration would also presumably support diplomacy and its institutions, lift the travel ban against Iranians and other Muslims, deliver respectful messages to Iran, and recognize its right to enrich uranium for civilian purposes as a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This recognition by the United States arguably contributed more to the signing of the JCPOA than the sanctions. 

If the United States were able to re-enter the JCPOA, the Biden administration would have to resell it to the American government and public as a means of recalibrating and rebalancing US policy in the Middle East, promoting nuclear non-proliferation and much-needed stability there, reducing the US military footprint in the region, and allowing Washington to pivot toward Asia and focus more on other high-priority regions and issues.

In order to successfully implement this policy, the Biden administration would have to overcome the obstruction of hardliners and hawks in Iran, the United States, and its regional partners that have contributed to and benefited from continued and escalated Iran-US tensions.

KZ: Do you believe the Iranian leadership has conceded that the sanctions constitute an integral reality of the Iranian economy, but is not deeply concerned about them as it’s the people, not the leadership, that bear the brunt of these punitive measures?

EL: In the case of Iran and other so-called rogue states, decades of sanctions have remained a flawed and failed policy. They have punished average citizens and rewarded political elites and have not precipitated the demise of the regime nor the modification of its behavior.

If anything, sanctions have worsened its behavior and aggravated conflict between the United States and Iran and their regional partners and proxies. Iranian elites have circumvented sanctions and used them to their benefit to distract from governance-related deficiencies, keep the market closed to foreign competition, and protect commercial interests, monopolistic entities, and smuggling networks.

While sanctions may further the political and economic interests of these elites, the latter must be careful the sanctions, alongside government mismanagement and corruption, do not generate so much daily hardship for citizens that they continue to organize and join popular protests, as has been increasingly the case since 2017.

As a consequence of these protests, Iranian elites have confronted greater sociopolitical instability, encountered difficulties managing the situation, resorted to even more repression, and further damaged state legitimacy. 

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.