Waiting for Trump: watching US elections in Tehran

Iranians ponder the possible implications of the US presidential election on the future of the nuclear agreement


Reese Erlich for Tehran Bureau, posted on Guardian webpage

Monday 7 March 2016 07.34 EST

As American hardliners scramble to see who can bash Iran harder, Iranians worry the power struggle for control of the United States government could undermine their nuclear deal with world powers, under which the toughest international sanctions have been lifted in return for Iran restricting its nuclear energy programme.


The Iranian government remains committed to implementing the deal signed last July, according to Seyed Mohammad Marandi, an associate professor of world and international studies at the University of Tehran.


“The parliament supported it,” said Marandi. “The Supreme National Security Council supported it. The leader supports it. The new parliament will definitely support it.”


But Marandi and many others worry that the US may renege on the agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or otherwise seek to antagonise Iran. He cites the decision by the US Congress and Obama administration to require anyone who has visited Iran (or Iraq, Syria and Sudan) to apply for a visa to enter the US – including Iranian dual nationals living in Europe who may have been visiting family. Similar regulations don’t apply to people who have visited Saudi Arabia or other US allies.


Marandi says the new procedures violate the spirit if not the letter of the JCPOA. “It is discriminatory,” he said. “The irony is that the terrorist attacks that have taken place in the United States have been carried out by people from places like Saudi Arabia. But the restrictions are against Iranians.”


Iranian officials also worry about who may come to power in the US. Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have both vowed to cancel the nuclear agreement. Cruz said he would “rip [it] to shreds” on his “very first day in office”.


When in January the Obama administration secured the release of four Americans held in Iran in return for the release of seven Iranians imprisoned in the US, Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner, denounced a “bad deal” that set a “bad precedent”.


“The US elections will definitely have a big impact,” said Hamid Dehghani, Middle East director of Iran’s foreign ministry. But he notes that to re-impose sanctions lifted under the JCPOA, the US would need the support of Europeans, Russians and Chinese: “The US doesn’t have the power to stand against the whole world.”


Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister, during an appearance in London prior to the elections, noted that American presidential candidates say one thing on the campaign trail but do another once in office. “I’m sure the next US president will not be able to tear up the agreement, because if we implement that agreement, it’s so good for everybody that nobody will see it in their interest” to tear it up.


Opponents in Iran of the nuclear agreement fared badly in elections on 26 February for both parliament and the Assembly of Experts, the clerical body that selects the supreme leader. But they are far from silenced.


Ahmad Nasirinasab, a 54-year-old small businessman interviewed at Friday prayers in Tehran, continues to oppose the nuclear agreement. “I think we have been cheated,” he said. “We stopped our nuclear activities, but sanctions are still in place.” He was referring to continuing unilateral sanctions imposed by the US on Iran for human rights violations and testing ballistic missiles.


Neither does continued implementation of the JCPOA mean cooperation with the US on regional issues such as Syria. If anything, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, intelligence services and supreme leader have offered even stronger support for President Bashar al-Assad in recent months.


Opinion in Iran seems to have moved more in support of Iran’s participation in Syria since last September, when the Russian military launched air strikes and sent ground troops to battle rebels, allowing the Syrian army to regain control of some areas.


Moscow’s intervention “has led to the feeling that we are not alone,” said Mohammad Pirali, managing editor of the conservative newspaper Siasat-e Rooz. “There are other powerful countries that have the same interest as us.”


Iran has fewer than 2000 Revolutionary Guards stationed in Syria, according to Marandi. But it finances thousands more fighters from the Lebanese Hezbollah, and Shia militias from Iraq and Afghanistan. Hundreds have died in battle, causing some Iranians to doubt the war effort.


“These concerns are still there,” said Pirali, “perhaps even stronger. But people have accepted the justification that if we don’t continue what we’re doing in Syria, we may have to fight at our own borders.”


A recent opinion poll by the University of Maryland indicated 63% of Iranians support their government sending troops to Syria.


Pirali concedes, however, that the war is unlikely to end soon. If Iranian casualties mount, would public opinion shift against Iran’s role? “Yes, it’s quite probable,” he said. “Iran is not interested in that at all. We’ll try to finish as soon as possible.”


That may not be so easy. Dehghani, the foreign ministry official, admits Assad has lost control of 60% of Syria’s territory. “Syria has been unofficially divided by rebel groups,” he said. “The situation is fluid.”


Reese Erlich received a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for his coverage of Iran. The Tehran Bureau is an independent media organisation, hosted by the Guardian. Contact us @tehranbureau

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