US President Barack Obama, standing with Vice President Joe Biden, delivers remarks in the East Room of the White House in Washington on July 14, 2015. Photo: AFP /Andrew Harnik

RASHT – Iranian hardliners, with their eye on the presidency in 2021, are closely watching the US presidential election, where a Biden win could create pressure for revived talks, even as a Trump win would allow them to operate freely in isolation.

Kayhan, the most conservative newspaper in Iran, notorious for peddling conspiracy theories and anti-US tirades, has been giving special coverage to the campaign. Many of its front pages in recent weeks have been dominated by headlines about the November 3 ballot.

One day after the first presidential debate on October 1, Kayhan’s front page carried a headline in an outsized font reading, “Don’t continue with the debates; the United States’ reputation is gone with the wind.”

Beneath the headline was a statement taken from a September 30 tweet by Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, saying, “I pray … that the whole world is not watching this debate.”

In an editorial published on October 14, Hossein Shariatmadari, the firebrand managing director of Kayhan, touched upon right-wing American radio personality Rush Limbaugh‘s MAGA “rally” in which President Donald Trump attacked Iran, writing that “Trump’s insults and invectives, which have been criticized by US and European officials and the media, signify America’s empty hands when it comes to dealing with Iran.”

“Who knows, maybe Trump, the murderer of our martyr general Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, will go to hell before the upcoming US presidential election,” Shariatmadari fumed.

On October 15, the hardline daily ran a report with the blunt title “The competition of two psychopaths: the mental health of Biden has been called into question.”

The report cited the former White House physician Ronny Jackson, who said Joe Biden was similarly mentally troubled and listed a succession of his “gaffes” and verbal screw-ups. But it did not spare the incumbent, quoting “prominent American psychologists” who had cast doubt on Trump’s psychological health, implying that neither of the two candidates were fit for the office.

Kayhan’s strategy over the recent weeks has pivoted on insinuating that the United States is divided, that America’s democracy is decaying, and that the showdown between Trump and Joe Biden is a vindication of its view that the US empire is collapsing.

Better under isolation

On social media, reactions have been more unequivocal, particularly by a group of Iranian hardliners who seem to have a sinister interest in the reelection of Trump for the reason that he is not open to diplomatic engagement with the Islamic republic, and as a result, they can pursue their economic interests in an insulated society cut off from the rest of the world.

Alluding to the polls indicating Biden’s lead, one user with the pseudonym “Javidovsky,” tweeted, “Trump is losing. The lovers of negotiations must be cuffed to chains so that they don’t sell the country to Biden.”

In a tweet on October 14, Mohsen Bashtam, branding himself as a “revolutionary teacher” in his biographical blurb, with 10,000 followers, posed the question, “Do you also prefer Donald Trump to win in the US election?”

In a thread on October 15, he scribbled that “Biden’s election means the debate on negotiations is reignited, which means the Leader will be once again pressured by the reformists, because they will be instilling in people’s minds that the inflation and [spike in] the price of dollar is because of Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA … and by talking around negotiations, they will want to garner votes for the 2021 elections [of Iran].”

Hossein Yazdi, a Twitter user who runs a Persian-language news website, wrote in a thread of tweets, “[Iranian] conservatives know that Joe Biden has been the old friend of Javad Zarif for 40 years and if elected, the actions of these two can change everything in the country in favor of the coalition of traditional and modern right-wingers.

“They had assumed that Trump would easily win the polls… He is a businessman and can be a good friend for the conservatives, the same way Kim Jong-un is the cordial friend of Trump.”

Iranian authorities have been singing from the same hymn sheet on the US elections. Their shared talking point is that no matter who is the victor of the US polls, the White House policy toward Iran will not change and the Islamic republic will also not condition its decisions on the outcome of the November 3 elections.

The conservative Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf said on September 20: “We should not let the country and people’s livelihoods be shackled by the West… We should know that the enmity of the United States with this nation is deep-seated.

“Whether Trump is president or Biden will make no difference to their principal policy of delivering a blow to the Iranian nation.”

Reacting to remarks by John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence in the Trump administration, who accused Iran, Russia and China of trying to sway the US election, Saeed Khatibzadeh, the spokesperson for Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said, “The Islamic republic genuinely doesn’t attach any importance to the US domestic politics.”

That is unlikely.

Prospects for peace

Should Joe Biden unseat his iron-willed opponent on November 3, it will be a boon for Iranian reformists, and it is not wishful thinking to presume Tehran and Washington could turn a bumpy road into détente.

Tehran-Washington relations have been teetering on the edge of the abyss thanks to Trump’s reckless maximum pressure campaign and Iran’s reciprocal provocations, but the upcoming US presidential elections may offer a glimmer of hope as many analysts expect Trump’s likely defeat and the coming to power of the more progressive Biden will pave the way for new negotiations and the settlement of disputes.

Biden has opened up massive leads in the majority of nationwide pre-election polls, and the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll released on Sunday showed he is leading Trump by a 55% to 43% margin. Experts say if Biden dispatches the right signals to Iran and evinces a willingness to uphold the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – a diplomatic breakthrough he was part of as Barack Obama’s vice president – even the immovable supreme leader of Iran will give the nod to talks with the United States. 

“Iranian leadership is waiting to see what’s going to happen with the American elections. I do believe that he [the supreme leader] would allow some negotiations within the framework of JCPOA if Biden is elected,” said Sina Azodi, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“The Islamic Republic, despite its track record of pursuing ideology, is fully capable of making decisions based on national interests … I believe that if Tehran deems it a right time to talk with Washington, it certainly will,” he added.

Experts stress that the landmark JCPOA was born out of a solid political commitment by Iran and the United States to cease being on a collision course, at least temporarily, and work together on the basis of shared interests. Presently, both sides need to talk to each other: the United States to alleviate its national security concerns, and Iran to pull its economy out of its slump. 

“The supreme leader is pragmatic. If he senses that the security and popularity of the Islamic republic is at stake, then he is able to rationalize any undesirable policy, including talking to the Americans,” said Dina Esfandiary, a fellow at the New York-based think tank The Century Foundation.

An important question that lingers around the future of Tehran-Washington relations is whether they will be renegotiating the US return to the JCPOA, and if such talks can serve as a launchpad for a more comprehensive understanding between two foes that have been out of step since 1979 due to a panoply of sticking points.

JCPOA on life support

The JCPOA, now on its last legs after the US withdrawal and Iran’s reciprocal venture to roll back its technical commitments under the accord, was the first diplomatic agreement Iran and the US achieved after four decades of estrangement. And thus far, Iran’s nuclear dossier has been the only fault line Tehran has agreed to engage with the Americans about.

“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,” said Eric Lob, a scholar of Iran-US relations and an assistant professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Florida International University.

Trita Parsi, the executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington, DC, expressed similar views.

“The signals Biden has sent is that he will pursue compliance for compliance, which means that both sides realign themselves with the JCPOA fully. Once both sides are in compliance, the Biden administration is open to entering new negotiations to build upon the JCPOA, not to renegotiate it,” he told Asia Times.

“The reality of the geopolitical context Iran finds itself in is such that no dialogue with the United States is to Iran’s disadvantage. Even in the case of Trump, had there been some dialogue early on in his presidency, chances are that he would not have gone down the path he did,” Parsi added.

The feasibility of Iranian and American officials sitting at the bargaining table once more to resuscitate an atrophying nuclear deal or to hammer out a new agreement is not only contingent upon the outcome of November 3 polls in the US, but also the upcoming presidential elections in Iran in 2021, when President Hassan Rouhani cannot run again due to term limits.

Moderates out, hardliners in

The concern for those in favor of a deal is that the Iranian political scene is now littered with former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders who have signaled an interest in running for president. 

Should an anti-US hardliner rise to power in Iran, and should Trump manage to outflank Biden, tensions could spiral out of control. Under such circumstances, not only will talks be out of the question, but a military showdown may also be ominously close.

“A combination of a Trump 2 administration and a conservative presidency in Iran would likely increase the risk of war,” said Parsi, who is the former president of the National Iranian American Council.

He added that “the strategy of waiting out Trump’s first term cannot be reapplied to his second term, and Tehran will likely move toward a strategy of counter-pressure.”

But there are commentators who believe in a more positive scenario, maintaining that neither Iran nor the US have the inclination and resources to wage a war of unknown length and cost.

“After the traumatic experience of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, I think the United States is out of the military regime change business in the Middle East no matter who is elected in November,” said Barbara Slavin, a columnist at Al-Monitor and the director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

For the Iranian leadership, also, it is more desirable to be engaged in a cold war with the United States than engage in a demanding military face-off.

“From a military and economic perspective, Iranian leaders simply don’t have the luxury of standing up to the US and its coalition partners in the region. [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei has been sober-minded about this prospect in the past, which is why they did not retaliate immediately after Soleimani’s death. Their hands are tied, even if their tongues are not,” said Hussein Banai, an assistant professor of international studies at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies.

Dina Esfandiary of The Century Foundation is also of the opinion that even the hardliners in Tehran do not have a preference for war: “No one in Iran wants war with the United States. From moderates to hardliners, everyone knows that Iran will not walk away from an all-out war with the US victorious, so why would they risk it?”

Economic war

Still, Iran and the United States do not need to bring in fighter jets, tanks, drones and artillery to be quarreling. On several occasions, President Rouhani has described the US sanctions against Iran as “economic warfare,” including in late September when he said, “The US has waged an economic war against Iran by sanctions on the dollar, banking ties, economic institutions, and business companies.”

Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the international public face of Iran, has concocted the term “economic terrorism” to describe the US punitive measures, and been recurrently implanting the words in his tweets, interviews and speeches to insinuate the idea that the United States-led restrictions on Iran amount to injuries unjustly inflicted in a war.

“In the year 2020, you no longer run Afghanistan or Iraq-like invasions. Harm to Iran is already being done through sanctions, cyber-attacks, financing and support of separatist groups, and let’s not forget the use of media, social media channels and misinformation campaigns,” said Adnan Tabatabai, the CEO of the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO) in Bonn, Germany.

As the US presidential polls draw closer, all eyes in Iran are set on the rivalry between Trump and Biden.

On the surface, Iranian officials assert they have not knotted their decisions and the future of the national economy to the results of the US elections, which they say is a domestic affair of the Americans. But it is not too difficult to discern that they have pinned their hopes on Biden outpacing Trump to become president and the uS eventually reentering the JCPOA and withdrawing its punitive sanctions. Any such reform, though, will entail its own challenges.

CARPO’s Tabatabai says Biden’s re-embracing of the Iran deal on a “compliance-for-compliance” basis if he is elected might be difficult “as Tehran might seek to get compensation for the fallout of its returns during its years of full compliance without any returns because of the US withdrawal.”

Consequently, he deduces that “unless the actual JCPOA is revitalized and runs smoothly, talks on other issues, such as regional files and Iran’s missile program, are very unlikely to happen.”

A Biden presidency 

Assuming that Biden emerges as victor in the November 3 contest, how will he fulfill his promise of restoring the Iran deal and in what ways will he approach relations with Iran?

Hussein Banai envisions Biden’s Iran policy will be a combination of Obama and Trump’s Iran agenda.

“Biden will want to reassure the Saudis and the Israelis of continued close ties with the US, such as they have enjoyed under Trump, but also make the point that Iran’s nuclear program could be kept in check with the US back in the JCPOA than outside of it,” he told Asia Times.

“Biden was familiar with the complexities of that deal and how difficult it was to reach it. He wouldn’t want to renegotiate another deal outright since that would commit his administration to another partisan process,” he added, noting that in doing so, Biden will resist calls by Iran for further concessions.

Despite what appears to be a thorny path to the defusion of tensions, it is still possible for Iran and the United States to disentangle themselves from the hostilities that have piled up over the years and particularly intensified in recent months. An Iran-US rapprochement will serve the two nations, stabilize the blistering Middle East and boost global peace.

“A de-escalation of tensions is profoundly in the interest of all the people in the region and of the US and Europe. A Biden administration would support such diplomacy while maintaining a limited military presence in the region,” said the Atlantic Council’s Slavin.

Given his credentials as a moderate politician who helped muster support for the JCPOA when he was vice president, Biden may be able to salvage the Iran deal, and this will strike a positive chord with both Iranians and Americans, according to Florida International University’s Eric Lob.

“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,” he said.

“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,” he added.

Lob believes if Biden is elected president, he will decouple the US government from the hawkish policies of Trump and adopt an Iran strategy that “relies on sticks and carrots rather than exclusively coercion in the form of military action and economic sanctions.”

This means President Biden will use the leverage of economic sanctions to merely coax Iran back to the negotiating table rather than punishing Iranians, “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].”

In its latest maneuver to mount pressure on Iran and put the final nail in the coffin of its moribund economy, the US government on October 8 imposed extensive unilateral sanctions on 18 previously untargeted Iranian banks. The new step is meant to completely cut off Iran from the global financial sector.

The sanctions, despite the Islamic republic authorities’ expression of bravado and impregnability, have paralyzed Iran’s economy, drained the country’s sources of revenue and made daily life for Iranians nightmarish. To remedy this impasse, Iran needs negotiations with the United States.

“Iran is in a more vulnerable and weakened geopolitical situation than the US is, so if the domestic situation is dire enough that they would need to get some relief from sanctions then they will definitely look past Soleimani’s killing,” said Banai. 

The only problem, in the opinion of Sina Azodi, is that President Rouhani, who ran on a ticket of engagement with the West, will not be in office for long if Biden replaces Trump in November.

“Rouhani’s administration will not be in the office much longer even if Biden is elected. I think a Biden administration would certainly choose engagement with Tehran, but there won’t be much time for Biden. It is very likely that the next Iranian administration would be of a hardliner. They do not hold Rouhani’s pro-engagement views on foreign policy,” he noted.

What is for sure is that Iran-US negotiations are inevitable, as the current level of hostilities is not viable, and stability in the Middle East needs to be redefined. The Iranian people cannot keep up with the burden of the grueling sanctions in perpetuity.