Election 2020

Iran Is Laughing at Trump and Placing Hope in Biden

The country is treating the outcome of the U.S. election as an opportunity—and a potential threat.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waving as he attends a gathering of Basij militia forces in Tehran. Khamenei on February 26, 2008 hailed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's role in the "great success" of the nuclear program, amid threats of new sanctions against Tehran.
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waving as he attends a gathering of Basij militia forces in Tehran. Khamenei on February 26, 2008 hailed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's role in the "great success" of the nuclear program, amid threats of new sanctions against Tehran. AFP via Getty Images

As U.S. President Donald Trump urged his followers to disrupt the counting of ballots, he provoked laughter from the leaders of countries to which the United States had long preached democracy. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, tweeted, “What a spectacle! One says this is the most fraudulent election in US history. Who says that? The president who is currently in office. His rival says Trump intends to rig the election! This is how #USElections & US democracy are.”

Trump walked out of the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 and reimposed debilitating sanctions on the country. This “maximum pressure” policy punished the Iranian regime, but, as is often the case, it mostly hurt the Iranian people. The resulting absence of popular goodwill explains why Iranian Twitter so vociferously exploded with mockery at Trump’s post-election press conferences disputing the results; one Iranian said their own regime could never match the U.S. president’s success at undermining democracy on live television. Iranians were also quick to rejoice when Joe Biden was declared president-elect, expressing hope that he would restore normal economic relations.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani indicated his government was ready for talks, although in a well-calculated manner that guarded Iranian pride. He said he hoped that the last three years of pressuring Iran without much avail taught the United States a lesson that will make “the next U.S. administration follow the law and return to all its commitments” under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, signed when Biden was vice president. Seyed Mohammad Marandi, an Iranian American academic and political analyst, said in an interview that Iran expects the United States to fully comply with its obligations under the deal and “compensate for damages done due to U.S. violations of the deal.” Only then would Iran return to the table, Marandi added.

Ellie Geranmayeh, a senior policy fellow and deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that while Biden has made it clear he wants to rejoin the agreement, the U.S. Senate might make it harder if it goes to the Republicans. “Nonetheless, there would be a very obvious opening between Tehran and Washington on the nuclear deal,” Geranmayeh said. “From the U.S. perspective, and frankly from Europe’s perspective too, Iran’s expanding nuclear program is the No. 1 threat to security that they need to deal with.”

She added that Biden intends on ending conflicts where Iran exerts influence over local actors, including in Yemen and Iraq, which would imply some further cooperation between Washington and Tehran. “Biden would look to stabilize the region, which would mean reaching some sort of direct or indirect settlement with Iran.”

But in an article in Foreign Affairs published in the spring, Biden added a caveat. He would renew commitment to diplomacy to strengthen the existing nuclear agreement “while more effectively pushing back against Iran’s other destabilizing activities,” implying curtailment of Iran’s funding of Shiite militias in the region, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah. (Lebanese President Michel Aoun, for his part, expressed hopes that Biden would “restore balance” to Lebanese-U.S. ties after the Trump administration newly imposed Hezbollah-related sanctions on his son-in-law Gebran Bassil, the head of the Free Patriotic Movement.)

Iranians are cautiously anxious about Biden’s plans for the region. But they may have to be patient. The president-elect’s most clearly stated priorities, the coronavirus pandemic and China’s rise, have little to do with the Middle East.

Anchal Vohra is a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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