The theatrical presidential race in the US is over after a blistering campaign season. Even though the loser has defied a long-standing tradition by refusing to concede defeat and congratulate his challenger, it is safe to assume Joe Biden will be sworn in on January 20, 2021, as the 46th president of the United States.
Newspapers, radio and TV stations, and news agencies are flooded with analysis and commentaries about how this election was epoch-making and unparalleled, what should be expected of Joe Biden, eyed by millions of Americans, as well as people in the four corners of the globe to undo the damage done by the eccentric Donald Trump to the pillars of democracy and multilateralism, and what the world will look like in the post-Trump era.
The new president and his administration will have to go to great lengths to restore the classical leadership role of the United States on the global stage, remind the American people of the true contours of presidential oratory and eloquence, and confront a slew of challenges blighting the global community, ranging from climate change and war in Afghanistan to the economic cataclysm stemming from Covid-19.
I have not surveyed other nations on how they have been following this dramatic presidential competition, but I can argue with a good degree of certainty that the Iranian citizen who first concocted the viral meme that “Iranians should be allocated at least six electoral votes for the passionate way they track the developments of the US presidential election” was not misguided.
From the Supreme Leader to the president, parliamentary Speaker and other high- and mid-ranking officials, there was rare unanimity among Iran’s political elite in trotting out the talking point that US elections do not matter to Iran and regardless of who was elected this time, the Islamic Republic would not condition its economy or future decisions on the outcome of the US polls.
Yet that disclaimer, most probably expressed to give the impression that Iran is resilient and self-sufficient enough not to be affected by the transition of power within the borders of the world’s foremost superpower, could not shroud that on the streets, in taxis, cafes, restaurants, retail stores, family gatherings and all over the social media, the US election was the most popular theme for discussion by Iranians in the weeks leading up to November 3.
Over the past couple of weeks, and more broadly throughout the campaign season, Iranians have been fixated on the Trump-Biden rivalry, conjecturing different scenarios on what the future holds for Iran-US relations in the case of a Trump re-election or a Biden victory.
Discussion forums, Facebook groups and Telegram channels were replete with animated conversations between the Iranian supporters of the two candidates, sometimes degenerating into furious bickering and exchange of expletives, and the Persian-language Twitter forum was a scene for more enlightened theorizations about which candidate had higher chances of winning the race and how the victor would lay out his Iran policy.
This profound infatuation with the civic processes of a foreign country is definitely unusual, if not exceptional. It is of course the case that the United States is an important country, and President Trump’s unsparing, Machiavellian policies on the Islamic Republic throughout the past four years have made Iranians more sensitive and vulnerable to the evolutions of US politics. Words should not be minced in admitting the gravity of the presidential race in America not only for Iranians, but for the entire world.
Yet to see Iranians lining up against each other, embarking on aggressive broadsides over the outcome of elections in a country they have the least direct engagement with is somewhat peculiar, probably pointing to the deep social divisions in the enigmatic Iranian society.
There are plenty of reasons to root for Joe Biden. He has a long career in politics, understands the delicacies of international relations, knows how to interact with friends and foes, doesn’t have a penchant for running the country on Twitter, doesn’t abhor Mexican immigrants and Muslims, doesn’t reject science to embrace superstition, comprehends the acuteness of climate change, isn’t a racist, doesn’t revile women and, above all, is “presidential.”
These are some of the grounds on which the Iranian devotees of Joe Biden, like everybody in the world who admires him, have been heaping praise on the 77-year-old former vice-president, who oversaw the inking of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the nuclear deal) between Iran and six world powers, including the United States, back in July 2015.
But it hardly seems to chime with common sense that the very Donald Trump who slapped the most crushing economic sanctions on Iran, leading to a massive decline in the value of the national currency, called Iran a “nation of terror,” and gave the go-ahead for the killing of Iran’s most feared military commander Qasem Soleimani, has had diehard proponents among Iranians who are still finding it difficult to believe he has lost the race, and have pinned their hopes on the outcome of his legal action in the swing states.
Ironically, the Iran-based supporters of Trump were not those zealots who wished to see him re-elected to redouble economic, political and military pressure on Tehran so that the regime collapses and a new government is installed. The Iranian crusaders for Trump, who are at this moment busy retweeting and circulating his misinformation about electoral fraud and recounting of votes, are the anti-US revolutionaries and hardliners who have their own outlandish reasons to vouch for the incumbent.
These hardliners consider the prospect of a reconciliation between Iran and the United States under President Joe Biden a nightmare for their political subsistence, economic prosperity and ideological supremacy over Iranian society.
Their reasoning, while simplistic, is quite straightforward: With Biden in the White House, it is highly likely that the JCPOA will be rejuvenated, Tehran and Washington will ease tensions and get involved in dialogue, Iran will be integrated into the international community once more, and this means the myth of an “Islamic North Korea” will fizzle out.
The term “Islamic North Korea” referred to a cloistered society to be set up in Iran, characterized by no meaningful ties with the outside world, an incapacitated and demoralized population, no free press, no civil society and no accommodation for sociopolitical reforms.
In such a society, the profuse natural resources, energy reserves and wealth of the nation would be appropriated by a powerful minority that would be racked with pain if there were foreign investment, communication with the international community and synergy with the West, particularly the hardliners’ favorite whipping boy, the United States.
In their parochial understanding, bereft of any recognition of national interest, Iranian hardliners – whether they are petty pundits with a few hundred social-media followers or more influential decision-makers at the high echelons of the government – would prefer to see Trump in office for another four years so that there is no elbow room for negotiations between the two governments, as a result of which they could maintain their economic monopoly in a country that sits on some of the largest oil and natural-gas reserves in the world, while being justified in their continued anti-US hate-mongering.
Also, for another group of Iranian ultra-conservatives, aligning with Trump is driven by partisan interests. They will be very disappointed to see the government of Hassan Rouhani, a thorn in their side, take credit for negotiating with the Biden administration, winning sanctions relief and resuscitating the nuclear deal. So they wanted Trump to remain in the Oval Office, a man with whom they knew Rouhani would not negotiate.
This might sound quite bizarre, but it is a reality of the fragmented Iranian society in 2020. The very hardliners who were kicking up a storm after the killing of Qasem Soleimani, that Iran must take a “hard revenge” on the United States and its president for that unforgivable sin, are now calling for the results of the US elections to be repealed so that Donald Trump’s presidency is extended.
The vocal hardliners and revolutionaries of Iran are everywhere: on state TV, official news agencies, government-owned newspapers, Friday prayer sermons, universities and schools. They are perennially busy delivering anti-US diatribes and foretelling the imminent collapse of American “imperialism” and hegemony.
But if the US presidential election had any message for the Iranian people, it is that the assertions of this dishonest cohort and their avowals of being concerned about the future of Iran ring hollow in light of their tainted record of imposing an assortment of costs on their country throughout the past four decades. Now, they are mourning the victory of Joe Biden, and it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.
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.