Did Tehran set its hopes on a Trump victory?

Mustafa Fahs

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In the aftermath of the US elections, the Iranian leadership has given varied responses in reaction to the results. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a statement asserting, “Our policy toward the US is clearly set and does not change with the movement of individuals. It does not matter to us who comes and goes.” Furthermore, Khorasan, a hardline controversial newspaper published the following headline on its front page “The Unmasked Enemy Is Gone, the Masked Enemy Has Arrived!” As for the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani and his Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, they were more flexible and chose to focus on the opportunity for possible negotiations with the new US administration, but they also used condescending language as they talked about Iran’s preconditions, as if Tehran is the one imposing harsh economic sanctions on the US.

On the surface, some decision-making circles in Tehran are showing cautious optimism about Biden’s victory; however, a closer look shows that Iran is lamenting Trump’s loss along with the favorable opportunities for successful negotiations if Trump had been reelected for a second term. It would appear that the Iranian leadership had placed its bets on repeating previous experiences, since history has shown US administrations to be more lenient in their second term. During the second term, presidents are usually ready to reap the benefits of the political and strategic investments they made in their first term, and they become more eager to collect profits through deals and settlements. The Iranian experience with President George W. Bush and Barack Obama during their second term had Iran setting its hopes on Trump’s second term victory.

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During his first term, President George W. Bush labeled Iran as “an axis of evil,” yet in his second term, he went as far as conceding its hegemony over Iraq, and he relieved pressure on its allies in Syria and Lebanon. As for Obama, during his first term, he imposed the most severe sanctions on Iran and declared his support for the Syrian people’s revolution. Meanwhile, his only concern during his second term had been to sign a historic deal with Iran in order to add it to his record of achievements, so he turned a blind eye to the oppression that the Iranian Green Movement was subjected to, and he did not stand in the way of Iran’s destabilizing actions in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

What is suspicious about Iran’s dealings with the Trump administration in the last six months before the elections, is the complete and utter restraint and discipline it displayed. Iran completely refrained from committing even the slightest infractions that might lead to a serious escalation with Trump’s administration. In fact, the attacks its armed factions were launching in Iraq against the American and coalition forces, and the missiles that were being launched in the vicinity of the US embassy, had completely stopped at the beginning of last September. Moreover, a truly surprising turn of events occurred; We witnessed Lebanon’s Shia duo Hezbollah and the Amal Movement agree for the Lebanese government to negotiate with Israel on the demarcation of the maritime borders after ten years of refusing and setting several conditions, the most prominent of which was the delineation of the demarcation between land and sea.

It is worth noting that ever since the head of the Amal Movement, Nabih Berri, announced the demarcation negotiations, the US Department of the Treasury has stopped imposing more sanctions on Lebanese officials, and the US State Department’s tone with Lebanese politicians has improved considerably. As for the security front, airstrikes that the Israeli warplanes were launching against Iranian targets in Syria have stopped, and Hezbollah maintained the calm over southern Lebanese borders.

On more than one occasion, Trump hinted that he was ready to sign a deal with Iran after the presidential elections, and this is what Tehran has set its hopes on. However, it seems that these hopes have been shattered and Iran lost this opportunity for mutual negotiation with Washington. Iran is now back at square one, since negotiating with an administration in its second term is much easier than negotiating with an administration in its first term, especially since the new administration is more firm about the role of the state’s institutions and agencies after twelve years of having their decisions dictated by the White House. It is highly unlikely for Joe Biden’s team to return to the previous nuclear deal in its original format. In my opinion, it is likely that the Biden administration will follow up on the previous administration’s approach, starting from the point the previous administration has stopped. As for Tehran, it will enter into negotiations under the weight of harsh sanctions, more of which are likely to be imposed by the Trump administration in its final weeks. Finally, let us point out that Iran is currently suffering from a political and security vacuum after the killing of its general Qasem Soleimani, which is likely to affect its negotiating ability.

*This article was originally published in, and translated from, London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat

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