Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential elections has revived debates and raised hopes about re-establishing dialogue between Tehran and Washington. Many foreign policy experts and pundits have tried to outline steps and policies that the new US administration could adopt in its approach toward Iran.
For many Iranians who closely watched the race, the election results came as a relief, however, they have expressed cautious optimism about possible changes in the future.
“I was delighted to hear Trump’s election loss, not that I celebrated his rival’s victory . . . rather I hope policies of the incoming administration might be less confrontational compared to its predecessor and bring a temporary respite to our country,” Sara Anahid, an Iranian teacher and author, told Inside Arabia.
Iran and the US have had a fraught relationship marked by deep mistrust since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the US-backed Shah.
Iran and the US have had a fraught relationship marked by deep mistrust since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that toppled the US-backed Shah. A series of events, including a 444-day hostage crisis, turned the former close allies into bitter enemies and broke the formal diplomatic relations between the two nations.
Efforts made to bury the hatchet hit obstacles every time and were unsuccessful. That’s why no one expects that after four decades of turbulent relations, the distrustful adversaries can set aside their hostilities any time soon.
This year the Election Day in the US coincided with the anniversary of the American embassy takeover in Tehran. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei said in a live televised speech that Tehran’s policy toward Washington “has been calculated and transparent and will not change with the arrival of different individuals.”
“The US under [Donald Trump] has destroyed the chances of new talks,” said Javad Asghari, an Assistant Professor at Bojnourd University, in North Khorasan Province. “As far as Ayatollah Khamenei is concerned, he has no enthusiasm for dialogue with Washington, let alone discussing a new deal! America has dealt severe blows to his leadership in recent years. First, by violating the 2015 nuclear agreement [that Ayatollah Khamenei himself reluctantly approved] and secondly, and perhaps most importantly, by assassinating IRGC top General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq. Ayatollah wept for him and recalled him months after his death,” Asghari added.
President Donald Trump abandoned the nuclear deal (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) signed between Iran and major world powers to put curbs on Iran’s nuclear program and re-imposed sanctions that had been lifted under that accord. Since withdrawing from the deal in 2018, Trump has been seeking to demolish that accord, piling up new sanctions in the final days of his administration to make it difficult for his successor to undo the damages. Trump’s order to assassinate Soleimani in January 2020 brought the US and Iran to the brink of war.
Tough Negotiations Loom on the Horizon
The sanctions, combined with the government’s mismanagement, have significantly harmed the Iranian economy leading to sharp currency devaluations and high inflation. According to a poll conducted by the Iranian Students Polling Agency (ISPA) in October, out of every 10 Iranians questioned, six have complained that their living conditions have deteriorated over the past five years. The COVID-19 pandemic, which is killing over 450 people every day or one person every three minutes, has compounded the situation.
During his campaign, Joe Biden pledged to rejoin the JCPOA and reduce tensions in the Middle East if Iran returns to compliance with the deal.
During his campaign as the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden pledged to rejoin the JCPOA and reduce tensions in the Middle East if Iran returns to compliance with the deal. Iran has reduced its commitments under the JCPOA in response to the US withdrawal but said those measures were reversible if Washington drops the nuclear-related sanctions.
Veteran documentary filmmaker and journalist Mahdi Khorramdel remains optimistic and believes “there will be negotiations ahead and will likely take place within the framework of the JCPOA, but such talks won’t be easy,” he told Inside Arabia.
“The US could at least take confidence-building measures by lifting nuclear-related sanctions to show that the withdrawal from the JCPOA was merely a decision by the former president without broad base support among American politicians,” said Khorramdel, who has accompanied Iranian diplomats abroad many times and was present during the marathon talks that led to the 2015 nuclear deal.
Joe Biden’s victory and rising hopes of getting rid of the crushing sanctions as well as a more lenient policy toward Tehran have had some positive impact on the currency market in Iran and slightly strengthened the Iranian rial, which has lost more than 50 percent of its value against the dollar since January. The rial purchasing power decline and spiraling inflation have turned everyday life for many Iranians into a greater struggle to make ends meet.
Hamid, who asked to be identified only by his first name, works at a grocery shop in downtown Tehran. When asked about the result of the US election and its impact on Iran, he sternly answered “What does the election in America have to do with us? . . . Nothing will change. Just a slight decline in the dollar’s value and nothing else! The price of dairy products, even cigarettes has increased by 30 percent for example . . . this is not the life that we deserve. There is no hope for any change in the future.”
“With Biden in the White House, we don’t expect drastic changes either. Maybe he could just facilitate access to essential goods and medicine.”
“JCPOA was short-lived and didn’t improve the living conditions of Iranians. Maybe they could have seen its benefits in the long term but Trump destroyed it. . . . With Biden in the White House, we don’t expect drastic changes either. Maybe he could just facilitate access to essential goods and medicine,” Ardalan Fattahi, an IT expert and content creator in Tehran, told Inside Arabia.
Ali Shariati a prominent businessman and exporter in Tehran also believes “it’s too early to comment about the Biden administration’s future foreign policy or how it wants to engage with Iran,” and added “It all depends on the makeup of his cabinet. If Biden picks moderate politicians, not anti-Iran hawks like Secretary Pompeo, it could help ease tensions and pave the way for constructive interactions.”
The rising public discontent over Iran’s faltering economy, government mismanagement, corruption, and the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, all made worse by the US sanctions, have badly harmed the popularity of the moderate and reform camp, particularly President Hassan Rouhani’s. The 72-year-old cleric was once considered a popular political figure in Iran. In 2017, Rouhani was re-elected with 57 percent of votes cast by more than 40 million voters, defeating his main conservative rival Ibrahim Raeisi, a cleric who later became the head of Iran’s judiciary.
Nasim Tavakol, a member of Tehran Chamber of Commerce and an award-winning entrepreneur, blames the government’s poor management as the cause of “major economic woes that we are facing today, including problems with export and imports of goods, budget deficit and so forth.”
With their popularity in decline, a part of the moderate and reform camp sees Joe Biden’s victory as a chance for diplomacy to reverse their fortune.
With their popularity in decline, a part of the moderate and reform camp sees Joe Biden’s victory as a chance for diplomacy to reverse their fortune for next year’s presidential election in Iran.
In a speech after Biden’s victory, Rouhani said that the incoming US administration will signal a major shift and therefore no opportunity should be wasted to lift sanctions.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif also said in an interview with a state-owned Iranian newspaper that he has known Joe Biden for 30 years and as a “veteran politician” who is well familiar with foreign policy issues, Biden could lift sanctions against Iran with “only three executive orders.”
Conservative hardliners meanwhile have interpreted those comments as part of efforts to re-establish dialogue with the United States. Conservatives, while wanting the removal of sanctions, fear any kind of reconciliation by moderates with the US could benefit Rouhani and his allies and as a result damage conservatives’ long-term plan to take control of the next government and seize all branches of power in Iran. Some pundits believe that the conservative camp doesn’t want any contact with Washington as long as Rouhani remains in power.
During a sermon in the eastern holy city of Mashhad on November 20, hardline Friday prayer leader, Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, said: “Those who consider Biden’s victory as an opportunity, are either ignorant fools or traitors.”
Iran’s hardline newspaper Kayhan wrote later on November 21, “If the Rouhani government holds talks with the US, such talks will cause Russia, China, and India to doubt our honesty about our Look to the East policy.”
Iran has pursued a “Look to the East” foreign policy to defuse threats emanating from Washington and diversify its global partners.
Under pressure from sanctions, Iran has pursued a “Look to the East” foreign policy to defuse threats emanating from Washington and diversify its global partners. Nonetheless, critics have argued that such policy can’t be a panacea and if history is any guide, China, India, and Russia have rarely taken Tehran’s side in the US-Iran conflict. Rather, they have always made decisions based on their national interests. These countries even have close ties with Iran’s arch-foe Israel.
“There are people whose interests are best served with Iran’s isolation and during sanctions and conflicts because they can multiply their profits. These people were Trump’s supporters inside Iran and very much [would have] liked him to win the election,” Shariati told Inside Arabia. “It is only through interaction and dialogue with the world and expanding our trade partners that we could facilitate a return to normal conditions,” he added.
What If Things Go Sideways?
Among the most salient concerns that people have expressed is a scenario in which Biden fails to readjust the course of US-Iranian relations as optimists have anticipated. Some are worried that Biden might want to use Trump’s sanctions as leverage to force Iran into a broader agreement that would include more requirements – especially Iran’s missile program and regional influence. And since Tehran has repeatedly reiterated those issues are not up for negotiations, they fear the situation would become even worse.
Filmmaker Khorramdel similarly believes that, “compared to Trump, Biden could pose a far greater risk to Iran.”
“The incoming administration’s policies could have short-term psychological effects on Iran’s economy.”
Nasim Tavakol also agreed with the above assessment. “The incoming administration’s policies could have short-term psychological effects on Iran’s economy. Maybe the situation will slightly improve,” she told Inside Arabia. “However, let’s not forget, Donald Trump had adopted a confrontational policy with daggers drawn. That policy has helped us to avoid isolation as other US allies refused to follow Washington’s lead. With Biden, things could turn out differently. He could become a popular president at the international level like Barack Obama and draw global support and consensus to isolate Iran and impose sanctions much easier,” she explained.
For her part, Anahid, who is living in the religious city of Qom, said: “I believe our situation is similar to a drowning person who might be able to keep her head above water for a short time to take a breath and go down again. . . . It’s sad but I think we are probably destined to go down again unless another course of action is taken.”
Negotiation with the US has always been a sensitive topic in Iranian politics and reformists and conservatives have used it as an excuse to assail each other and score political points. Yet history has shown that the Islamic Republic, regardless of which political camp holds the presidency, has held talks and had contacts with Washington in different formats when it was deemed necessary. The latest and perhaps most recent of such contacts were negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program that led to the conclusion of the JCPOA. Those talks started during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s second presidential term with the approval of Ayatollah Khamenei.
Khorramdel noted that Tehran and Washington might not be able to settle four decades of enmity any time soon as there are many complex factors involved. Still, he said, “promising developments” have taken place so far.
“We remember a time when direct talks with the US were taboo in Iran and any hint of that would have had severe consequences.”
“We remember a time when direct talks with the US were taboo in Iran and any hint of that would have had severe consequences. One could have been called a traitor and even landed in jail,” Khorramdel said. “Decades later, however, we saw that foreign ministers of the two countries [Javad Zarif and John Kerry] met [numerous times] to discuss Iran’s nuclear issue and President Obama and his Iranian counterpart Rouhani held a [historic] phone call. . . . They indeed faced serious backlash back home . . . but major changes take time and do not happen overnight.”
Iran is set to hold its presidential elections in June 2021. Most analysts have speculated that with the expected low turnout, President Rouhani’s successor will be a hardline politician who may not be open to dealing with the West.
Yet Hossein Dehghan, an advisor to Iran’s supreme leader who recently announced his candidacy for the upcoming elections, in telling remarks tweeted on November 20 that “If the United States recognizes Iran’s regional power, Iran will not cause them any problems. We believe Americans are pragmatists.”
In a hopeful last statement, Khorramdel added: “Let’s not forget Iran and Iraq fought a bloody war for eight years in the 80s but after the war, they resumed diplomatic relations and reopened their embassies in Tehran and Baghdad. This proves that if the US and Iran defuse their enmity, it could set the ground for a wonder in the future.”