The U.S. elections continue to draw the attention of the Iranian leadership and media, the latter of which has been giving front-page coverage to the process, disputed results and implications. Most of the publications mocked the confusion, division and the United States’s lack of direction.
The Vatan Emrooz newspaper illustrated this in a bloody cartoon published on its front page on Nov. 11, 2020, depicting Trump’s expected departure, which will deepen the left-right chasm within the United States.
Iran’s top religious and political figures have highlighted the damage caused to Iran by the U.S.’s maximum pressure policy. This has resulted in the Iranian regime’s unwillingness to discuss the nuclear deal with the incoming U.S. administration.
Iranian officials have maintained in this regard that the United States will be “examined by deeds and not by words” within regional contexts. The Iranian leadership called on the countries of the region to secure themselves in regional cooperation frameworks and not to be dependent on the U.S. and Israel.
In the domestic arena and against the background of the upcoming Iranian presidential elections in June 2021, the conservative and reformist camps are set to compete with one another over the benefits of negotiations with the United States. President Hassan Rouhani, who has served two successive terms, will not stand again. Both camps perceive the United States as the “six of one, half a dozen of the other.”
It is likely that reformist candidates will be screened beforehand, since the Guardian Council is dominated by conservatives who will try to block reformist candidates, as they did ahead of the recent (February 2020) Majlis (parliamentary) elections. If a hardline president is elected, both domestic and foreign policy (dealing with the nuclear dossier, Middle East peace efforts, power projections) will become more uncompromising and defiant. In the meanwhile, in the run-up to the election, conservatives in Iran will try to frustrate any dialogue with the incoming U.S. administration.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei emphasized before the U.S. elections and on Election Day that regardless of who is elected, “America is in decline.”
It appears that the Iranian Leader is leaning towards Iran’s conservative camp. In any case, relations with the United States critically impact both Iran’s economy and the welfare of its people. Therefore, relations with the United States is expected to be one of the major themes in the Iranian presidential election campaign and a key issue for the next Iranian president—reformist or conservative.
Khamenei has reiterated his past views that the U.S. elections have no implications for Iran, and he minimized their significance, saying, “It does not matter who will be the next president in the United States.” He added, “The decline of the United States is certain … The situation in the United States and its internal debate regarding the recent elections demonstrate the ugly reality of liberal democracy inside the country. No matter which one will be elected, there is one obvious point, which is the political, civil and moral decline of the American regime.”
Rouhani took advantage of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit and said in his Nov. 10, 2020 speech that the U.S. elections proved that not only the international community rejects the Trump administration’s mistaken policies. According to Rouhani, the American public is fed up with Trump, and the election results prove the failure of “a country that spreads threats, imposes sanctions, uses sticks, threatens and bullies other nations and adopts wrong and misleading policies. “
Rouhani attacked the U.S. policy of unilateralism and said it had threatened international economic cooperation in recent years. According to the Iranian president, recently elected representatives in the United States must implement the mandate as determined by American voters, which means changing U.S. foreign policy and relations with other countries.
Alluding to the nuclear agreement with Iran, from which U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew in May 2018, Rouhani added that “renewed adherence to international laws, regulations and obligations, respect for the rights of other countries, and compensation for damages caused, are necessary conditions for restoring world’s trust in the United States.”
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said on Nov. 10, 2020, while visiting Pakistan, that the future of the nuclear deal (JCPOA) depends on the steps the United States undertakes. Tehran is waiting to see what policy the U.S. administration would implement and what action it would take regarding the nuclear deal. Regarding Joe Biden’s election, Zarif said, “Individual people are indeed important, but it is also essential to see how the administration runs.”
The Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a statement mocking the U.S. administration’s policy against Iran. The ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, said that “the Trump’s administration has been on the wrong track for several years, and the policy of maximum pressure has led to maximum defeat.”
In the spirit of the Iranian foreign minister, Khatibzadeh added that Iran will closely monitor the steps and policies of the incoming administration and that the United States has an opportunity to return from the wrong path.
Khatibzadeh referred to the recent peace agreements signed between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and declared that the U.S. elections “sent a new message to the Middle East … Iran reached out to its neighbors. However, the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia bought their security from psychopaths in the United States and Israel. They must immediately retract to seeking peace and security, acting within a regional context. If these countries want to keep putting all their eggs in the American basket, then it is no longer safe for them.”
The spokesman denied that Iran had already contacted Biden’s transition team and clarified that “in principle, Iran will not contact any party that is not related to the nuclear deal, especially given the fact that the new administration has not yet taken office.”
He reiterated that Iran would not be willing to make changes to the nuclear deal. “The agreement belongs to the past and is not open for discussion again … The United States violated U.N. Resolution 2231, withdrew from the nuclear agreement, caused enormous damage to the Iranian people and must compensate for it.”
In Iran’s domestic arena, six months before the Iranian presidential elections, the U.S. presidential election re-ignited the controversy between proponents and opponents of dialogue with the United States. Rouhani, Zarif and other proponents of dialogue with the United States are facing fierce fire from the conservative camp that is backed by Khamenei, who dismisses the U.S. election results and has continued to preach the Economic Resistance Doctrine.
Following the announcement that Biden was elected president, the newspapers and media affiliated with the reformist camp expressed hope that the United States would return to the nuclear deal. They proffered that Biden’s election would allow the renewal of dialogue between Iran and the rest of the international powers, in general, and specifically with those countries that would ease sanctions and even remove economic pressure on Iran, whose people have felt its destructive impact.
Headlines and op-eds of many newspapers in the reformist camp in Iran emphasize that the Iranian people are once again hoping that the future administration in Washington will herald a new era for them.
These articles call on the Rouhani government, which is expected to end its term in May 2021, and all government agencies, not to miss the opportunity to resume negotiations with the new U.S. administration. The newspaper Seday-e Eslahat (“Voice of Reform”) even published the headline on Nov. 7, 2020: “Iran is hopeful again.”
Officials in the reformist camp have called on Rouhani to use his influence over Khamenei to the fullest extent, to urge him to agree to a move towards talks with the United States. They have called to restart negotiations if the Biden administration returns to the nuclear deal or conducts behind-the-scenes talks on the required conditions that the United States would demand from Iran to enable it to return to the agreement framework.
Biden pointed out in an article published by CNN in Sept. 2020 that “there is a better way,” and that the United States will return to the agreement if Iran meets all its commitments. Biden added that this would serve as a starting point for further negotiations. In the wake of the elections, however, Iran has already reiterated that it is unwilling to change the agreement.
Biden said that the United States would also raise the issue of human rights, including the execution of wrestler Navid Afakari (who was convicted of murdering an IRGC security guard during the 2018 protests), and the arrest of attorney Nasrin Satuda. Biden also noted the importance of the reduction of tensions in the region, especially in Yemen.
The strengthening of the value of the Iranian rial against foreign currencies, after the historic steep drop in the value in the last six months and the sharp drop in the prices of vehicles, gold and even property in Iranian markets, were interpreted as positive consequences of Biden’s victory and, more precisely, the removal of Trump from the arena.
The newspaper Etmad published on Nov. 8 an article saying: “The conservatives continue to strongly oppose dialogue concerning the nuclear agreement. They ignore the fact that the state needs a clear and even urgent plan to get out of the crisis. After all, under the terms of the FATF (The Financial Action Task Force) and because of U.S. sanctions, there is no access to the program or an alternative way other than the nuclear agreement. Conservatives announced that even funds frozen in Iraq, South Korea and China—which are not dependent on the United States—are not being released.
The newspaper concluded: “Having a national dialogue based on national interests in order to reach an orderly and uniform policy in the face of the conditions that the future will set for us, is a necessary thing … From a uniform internal position, it is possible to introduce three-dimensional plans for the short, middle and long term, based on the nuclear agreement, in order to remove the sanctions and reach proper governance in domestic politics. The party presenting such plans could prospectively be elected as the future president in the upcoming elections in Iran in June 2021.”
Conservatives, for their part, have attacked the reformist camp, branding some of “the traitors who want to ‘waste’ the people’s time and to entrust all aspects of life and livelihood, and economy of the state and of the citizens to the United States.”
Conservative-affiliated newspapers emphasized that the reformists “beautify” Biden and Democrats, while the Democrats’ hand “was and is still made of steel but hidden under silk gloves.”
Conservatives further condemned Biden’s ardent support for the assassination of Qassem Soleimani. In addition, they noted that Biden was former U.S. President Barak Obama’s right-hand man, who planned and enacted the severe and cruel sanctions on Iran that lasted even during the coronavirus era.
The conservative camp emphasized that there is no real difference between Biden and Trump, and that Democrats are just a “prettier face” with the same policy and the same intentions that were implemented so far by the Republicans against Iran. A front page of the newspaper Quds featured on Nov. 8 a caricature depicting the shedding of Trump’s skin and the emergence of Biden out of it, pointing out no difference between them.
In the same breath, conservatives and prominent loyalists of the Iranian leader point out that the recent U.S. elections have most clearly demonstrated that the United States only appears to be a superpower, while its society is divided and suffering from many deep problems. Therefore, Iran should not place any hope in a morally, socially and politically declining country.
The Keyhan newspaper, affiliated with the Supreme Leader, reminded Rouhani on Nov. 9 that “American hostility to Iran did not begin with Trump and will not end with Biden.” The newspaper wrote that Rouhani and his government became beggars, asking once again for dialogue with Americans instead of investing their full energy in strengthening the foundations of the state and Iran’s internal power.
According to the newspaper, the Rouhani government has severely damaged the livelihood of the people and is once again passing the ball to other fields to cover up its helplessness. The ultra-conservative newspaper mentioned that Rouhani “passed the buck” and told the Iranian people a few weeks ago not to curse his government because of the difficult economic situation, but “to address the curses to the White House, which has implemented the most vicious sanctions against Iran.”
The front page of the conservative newspaper, Sobhe No (“Morning News”), ran a headline on Nov. 9: “Iranian Biden supporters are busy at work,” trying to make Biden pretty and present him as a good-natured man with whom Iran can start negotiations.
Conservatives emphasize that “the unforgivable ignorance and innocence of President Rouhani, Minister Zarif and the government” linked the fate of the Iranian people and the country’s economy to the nuclear deal. Therefore, conservatives insist, they should never be permitted to return to this naiveté. Instead of “salivating” over Biden’s victory; they should redouble their efforts and strengthen the foundations of the “Economic Resistance” in the remaining nine months of the current government, as Khamenei has declared for the second year in a row.
The conservative camp has reiterated that, over the past seven years, the Rouhani government has neglected numerous directives of the Iranian Supreme Leader. Rouhani called for proper and meticulous management of economic affairs, as well as a real and severe fight against corruption, implementation of banking system reforms, and more.
Furthermore, with the year of the presidential election around the corner, conservatives have expressed deep concern that reformists will use the dialogue card with the United States as a new tool to advance their candidates, as they will try to leverage improvement of the Iranian people’s economic situation as a result of the dialogue. Among other things, the conservatives raise concerns that the rival camp will advance Zarif’s candidacy for the presidency, because only a president like him can negotiate successfully with Biden.
At the same time, the conservatives leave little room to renew talks with the United States. They state that only if the United States fulfills a long list of Iranian conditions will they agree to return to the negotiating table with Washington regarding the nuclear deal.
However, they would by no means enter into a dialogue on other issues, including ballistic missiles, human rights or regional issues. Conservatives emphasize that Iran’s ballistic-missile capability is “the heart and soul” of Iran’s national integrity and security, which makes it a prohibited topic for discussion.
Prominent conservative sources emphasize that there is no difference between Biden and Trump. At the same time, there is no doubt that Trump’s departure is good news for Iran, because he was behind the assassination of Soleimani. The Javan newspaper, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards Corps and Zeinab Soleimani, the daughter of Qassem, pointed out that Trump’s removal eases somewhat the heavy burden on the hearts of the Iranian people. However, the account with those who ordered the assassination of the “great commander” is still open.
It should be noted that some of the conservatives warn reformists against entering into a dialogue with Biden. They use Trump’s own arguments about “crooked” elections. Among other things, the newspaper Sobhe No wrote that Biden is the “postal president” who was elected by a majority of the “dubious” votes that arrived in the mail.
On the other hand, the Tasnim news agency, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards Corps, published a caricature of Trump as a fat turtle flipped on a ballot box. “The system is corrupt and was deceived; otherwise I won!”
At the same time, figures who are considered senior officials in former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government and who are still close to him express surprising support for Trump and sharply criticize Rouhani for neglecting all the opportunities Trump had offered Iran in order to engage in a dialogue.
Abdol Reza Dori, a senior official in the Ahmadinejad office, reiterated that the Supreme Leader gave general permission to hold talks with the United States. However, both Rouhani and Zarif did not lead negotiations with Trump, because they “became enslaved to Democrats in the United States” and “promised” officials like John Kerry not to hold talks with the Trump administration. Dori talked about it in lengthy interviews with TV stations, such as the BBC in Persian. The Iranian regime considers this station to be allied with Iran’s enemies.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Alcyon Risk Advisors.