Iranians awaiting US election results with bated breath

An Iranian looks at a newspaper with a picture of US President Donald Trump on the front page, as the people’s interest in the presidential poll outcome soar in the country. (AFP)
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Updated 30 October 2020

Iranians awaiting US election results with bated breath

  • Khamenei himself hasn’t commented on the election, even as public interest has soared

DUBAI: Top officials in Iran say the upcoming US election doesn’t matter, but nearly everyone else there seems to be holding their breath.
The race for the White House could mean another four years of President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. Or it could bring Joe Biden, who has raised the possibility of the US returning to Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.
In the upper levels of Iran’s Islamic republic, overseen by 81-year-old Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, anti-Americanism is as deeply entrenched as at any time since the 1979 Islamic revolution, with presidents from both parties seen as equally repugnant.
“America has a deep-rooted enmity against the Iranian nation and whether Trump is elected or Biden, it will not have any impact on the US main policy to strike the Iranian nation,” parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf said in September, according to the semiofficial Fars news agency.
But noticeably, Khamenei himself hasn’t commented on the election, even as public interest has soared. State-run radio rebroadcast a BBC Farsi-language service simulcast of the presidential debates live — even as Iran continues to target journalists for the British broadcaster.
That interest allegedly includes Iran’s security apparatus as well. US officials accuse the Islamic republic of sending emails to voters seeking to intimidate them into voting for Trump. It may have been an attempt to link the president to apparent election interference in order to sow chaos, like Russia’s interference in America’s 2016 election. Tehran denies being involved.
The Iranian public is paying attention. The state-owned polling center ISPA said this month that 55 percent of people believe the outcome of the election will affect Iran “a lot.” Over half expected Trump would win, while a fifth said Biden. ISPA said it surveyed over 1,600 people by telephone, and did not provide a margin of error.
Trump’s reelection would mean the extension of his pressure campaign, including sanctions on Khamenei and other senior officials. Some of the sanctions are largely symbolic — Khamenei has only once traveled to America and does not hold any US bank accounts — but others have devastated the economy and sent the local currency into freefall. As a hedge, Iranians have poured money into foreign currency, real estate, precious metals and the stock market — which hit a record high in August.
Trump on the campaign trail has hit on that and his decision to launch a drone strike that killed a top Iranian general in January — a move that led Tehran to launch a retaliatory ballistic missile strike, wounding dozens of American troops.
To cheers, Trump has described the general, Qassem Soleimani, as “the world’s No. 1 terrorist,” likely due to him being blamed for the improvised explosive devices that maimed US troops in Iraq and for supporting Syria’s Bashar Assad. Many Iranians revered Solemani for fighting against Daesh and in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and millions flooded the streets for his funeral processions.
“The first call I get when we win will be from the head of Iran, let’s make a deal. Their economy is crashing,” Trump told a campaign rally in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on Monday. “They will call and I want them to do well, but they cannot have a nuclear weapon.”
Biden has left open the possibility of returning to the nuclear deal, in which Tehran agreed to limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. The other signatories — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — have remained committed to the agreement and allowed a UN arms embargo to expire as part of the deal, despite a White House push to keep it in place.
After Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 and restored crippling sanctions, Iran began publicly abandoning the agreement’s limits on enrichment. It now has at least 2.32 tons of low-enriched uranium, according to a September report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Experts typically say 1.15 tons of low-enriched uranium is enough material to be re-enriched for one nuclear weapon.
Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful and still allows IAEA inspectors to monitor its atomic sites. But experts say the “breakout time” needed for Iran to build one nuclear weapon if it chooses to do so has dropped from one year under the deal to as little as three months.
Iran in the past also has threatened to abandon a nuclear nonproliferation treaty or expel international inspectors. It recently began construction at an underground nuclear site, likely building a new centrifuge assembly plant after a reported sabotage attack there earlier this year.
“’America First’ has made America alone,” Biden said at a televised ABC town hall this month, playing on a longtime Trump slogan. “You have Iran closer to having enough nuclear material to build a bomb.”
What a return to the deal means, however, is in question. Biden’s campaign website says he would use “hard-nosed diplomacy and support from our allies to strengthen and extend it.” One criticism of the accord was its narrow focus on the nuclear program, despite concerns by the US, Israel and its Gulf Arab allies over Iran’s ballistic missile program and its presence in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.
Iran maintains that its ballistic missile program is vital for deterring potential attacks and non-negotiable. It is also unlikely to cease its military activities in Syria and Iraq, where it spent considerable blood and treasure in the war against Daesh.
But ensuring the survival of the Islamic republic, particularly amid the coronavirus pandemic, may require the same flexibility that saw Iran agree to negotiations with the US in the first place. Iran will hold a presidential election in June, but any decision to re-engage with Washington would have to be made by the supreme leader.
“Khamenei’s revolutionary path actually leads to America — that is, by seeking a stable, safe, and meticulously measured relationship with the United States, he believes he can guarantee the survival of both the regime and its revolutionary content and orientation,” wrote Mehdi Khalaji, a Qom-trained Shiite theologian who is an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Tehran’s objective is therefore a scandalous paradox: Deal with America to remain anti-American.”

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Turkish president denies country has a ‘Kurdish issue’

Updated 26 November 2020

Turkish president denies country has a ‘Kurdish issue’

  • Erdogan defended the removal of 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors from their posts
  • Erdogan's lack of sensitivity to the Kurdish issue could inflame tensions with Kurds in Syria and Iraq: analyst

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denied the country has a “Kurdish issue,” even as he doubled down on his anti-Kurdish stance and accused a politician of being a “terrorist who has blood on his hands.”

Erdogan was addressing members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Nov. 25 when he made the remarks.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) launched an insurgency against the state in 1984, and is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and US. Erdogan accuses the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) of links to the PKK, which it denies.

Erdogan told AKP members that Selahattin Demirtas, the HDP’s former co-chair who challenged him in the 2015 presidential elections, was a “terrorist who has blood on his hands.”

Demirtas has been behind bars since Nov. 4, 2016, despite court orders calling for his release and faces hundreds of years in prison over charges related to the outlawed PKK.

The president defended the removal of 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors from their posts in the country's Kurdish-majority southeast region since local elections in March 2019.

He also said the AKP would design and implement democratization reforms with its nationalistic coalition partner, which is known for its anti-Kurdish credentials.  

His words are likely to disrupt the peace efforts that Turkey has been making with its Kurdish community for years, although they have been baby steps. They could also hint at a tougher policy shift against Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

According to Oxford University Middle East analyst Samuel Ramani, Erdogan’s comments should be read as a reaction to Tuesday’s resignation of top presidential aide Bulent Arinc, who urged for Demirtas to be released and insisted that the Kurds were repressed within Turkey.

“This gained widespread coverage in the Kurdish media, including in Iraqi Kurdistan's outlet Rudaw which has international viewership,” he told Arab News. “Erdogan wanted to stop speculation on this issue.”

Ramani said that Erdogan's lack of sensitivity to the Kurdish issue could inflame tensions with Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

“It is also an oblique warning to US President-elect Joe Biden not to try to interfere in Turkish politics by raising the treatment of Kurds within Turkey.”

But Erdogan’s comments would matter little in the long run, he added.

“Much more will depend on whether Turkey mounts another Operation Peace Spring-style offensive in northern Syria, which is a growing possibility. If that occurs during the Trump to Biden transition period, the incoming Biden administration could be more critical of Turkey and convert its rhetoric on solidarity with the Kurds into action.”

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been a key partner for the US in its fight against Daesh. During a campaign speech in Oct. 2019, Biden criticized the US decision to withdraw from Syria as a “complete failure” that would leave Syrian Kurds open to aggression from Turkey.

“It’s more insidious than the betrayal of our brave Kurdish partners, it’s more dangerous than taking the boot off the neck of ISIS,” Biden said at the time.

UK-based analyst Bill Park said that Erdogan was increasingly influenced by his coalition partners, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

“He might also believe that both the PKK and the HDP have been so weakened that he doesn't have to take them into consideration,” he told Arab News. “The Western world will not respond dramatically to this announcement but they are tired of Erdogan. There is little hope that Turkey's relations with the US or the EU can be much improved. The Syrian Kurdish PYD militia are seeking an accommodation with Damascus, while the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the largest party in Iraqi Kurdistan, is indifferent to the fate of Turkey's Kurds and has problems of its own.”

The HDP, meanwhile, is skeptical about Erdogan’s reform pledges and sees them as “politicking.”

“This reform narrative is not sincere,” said HDP lawmaker Meral Danis Bestas, according to a Reuters news agency report. “This is a party which has been in power for 18 years and which has until now totally trampled on the law. It has one aim: To win back the support which has been lost.”

Turkey’s next election is scheduled for 2023, unless there is a snap election in a year.