A. Savyon, E. Kharrazi, and U. Kafash*
While the Iranian regime’s official position is that there is no difference between a Democrat or a Republican in the White House because both of them will be anti-Iran, there are a number of notable trends in Iranian reactions to Donald Trump’s election:
Reactions Common To Both The Ideological And Pragmatic Camps
- Trump’s win was a protest against the U.S. administration’s policies of slaughter, violence, and oppression both in and outside the U.S. Despite the Obama administration’s extraordinary efforts to end Iran’s international isolation, speakers from both Iranian camps attacked Obama and gloated over the Democrats’ loss.
- Trump is better for Iran than Clinton. In spite of the regime’s official policy of not preferring either candidate, some Iranians have said that a President Trump is better for Tehran for a number of reasons:
o Trump seeks better relations, not conflict, with Russian President Vladimir Putin, so Iran expects that he will let Putin deal with Syria, which is controlled by Iran.
o Trump is unpopular in the West, and will therefore find it difficult to form an international coalition against Iran – which Clinton could have easily done.
o Trump will need some time to identify his Republican allies in Congress before he can act against Iran.
o Since Trump is a businessman, there is cautious hope that his actions will be business-oriented, not purely ideology-oriented.
Reactions From The Pragmatic Camp
- Fear that the JCPOA will now be cancelled – particularly among those who labored to achieve the agreement, including President Hassan Rohani, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and members of the negotiating team.These representatives of the pragmatic camp were quick to stress that the U.S. must adhere to its commitments and implement the agreement with Iran, due to their apprehensions that President Trump would follow through on his campaign promise to reverse it. Others expressed cautious optimism that Trump as president would be different than Trump as candidate, as evinced by his victory speech, which they said was more measured and moderate than his campaign rhetoric.
Reactions From The Ideological Camp
- Threats against the U.S. are toned down, and instead there are vague threats that are less specific than in the past about an appropriate Iranian response to any move the U.S. might make against Iran.
- Recommendations that Trump focus on rebuilding at home rather than taking anti-Iran measures.
- Calling on Iranians to adhere to the regime’s official stance by refraining completely from issuing any pro- or anti-Trump statements.
Cartoon published November 16, 2016 by the Iranian news agency Mehr. Note the two Hitler serpents behind Trump.
It appears that Iran’s military-political elite prefers to deal with a male president, not a female one.Furthermore, in a November 2 speech ahead of the anniversary of the U.S. Embassy takeover in Tehran, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, in an unusual statement, explained Trump’s popularity among the American public as due to the fact that he speaks “honestly.” Moreover, unlike Clinton, Trump is seen by the Iranian leadership as not committed to democratic values or human rights because of his past remarks on women and minorities, and as a dominant ruler with whom Iran can find common ground. Iran has actually chosen to cooperate with Republican administrations that demonstrated strength and determination.
In this context, it is important to note that it is with Republican administrations that have demonstrated strength and determination that Iran has chosen to cooperate. For instance, when the U.S. military operated in Iraq and Afghanistan during the George W. Bush administration, Iran cooperated with U.S. forces and even stopped enriching uranium of its own accord, fearing an American attack. Also, during the Reagan administration, it was the Iranian regime that initiated dialogue with the U.S. on the Iran-Contra affair.
A contemporary example is the announcement by an Iranian diplomatic source, immediately after Trump’s win was declared, that Iran intends to remove from its territory a quantity of heavy water that puts it above the limits set by the JCPOA. An International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report from early November 2016 warned that Iran possessed too much heavy water, but it was only after Trump’s win that Iran hastened to announce its intention to rectify the violation.
It should also be noted that Trump, who was critical of the JCPOA, need not take measures to cancel the agreement. He can take another tack to do this, by this by strictly implementing all sections of the agreement as it already exists, upholding Congress’ initial sanctions on Iran for its human rights violations and support for terrorism, and passing additional sanctions, for example on Iran’s ballistic missile program which the Obama administration did not include in the JCPOA. In fact, in recent months, the Obama administration had been working to help Iran, in direct violation of the JCPOA and of Congress’s initial sanctions.
Such moves could restructure the relationship between Iran and the U.S. administration, making it into one based on cooperation and mutual understanding – in contrast to the Iranian regime’s contempt for and ridicule of the Obama administration. This scenario would be like the Reagan presidential win, after which Iran immediately released the Americans it had been holding hostage for over a year during the Carter administration.
Even more important than the future of the JCPOA, and much more urgent, is what Trump will do about the military and political empire that Iran is building in the Middle East – in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen – with the encouragement of the Obama administration, which sought to shift the region’s Sunni-Shi’ite power balance towards the Shi’ites. What action will he take against the Iran-led Shi’ite axis that is standing against the Sunnis, led by Saudi Arabia and Turkey? What will he do about Iran’s strategic partner, Putin’s Russia?
Mehr, November 16, 2016.
Following are excerpts from Iranian reactions to Trump’s win, from both the pragmatic and ideological camps:
Iran’s Pragmatic Camp
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said, during a visit to Romania: “We do not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. This is the choice of the American people. Anyone who will be president in America should recognize the reality in the region and the world, and address it realistically. Iran and America have no political ties, but America must meet its international obligations [under] the JCPOA, along with other parties.”
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi said: “The Iranian people and the Islamic Republic of Iran have bad and bitter memories from the previous policies and approach of American administration officials. What is important to Iran, and the Iranian people – whom [we] consider a touchstone – is how the next American administration will act and conduct itself. These things are more important than [Trump’s] statements and the policies he expressed during his election campaign.
“The main cause of the escalating violence, extremism, and provocations of Muslims in the region is the policies of the previous American administrations, and their interference in the affairs of the countries in the region. The instability in the strategic regions of the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Aden, and the Red Sea, and the threats stemming from the violence, extremism, spread of deviant and dangerous thought, and terrorism of groups such as ISIS – which Iran is at the forefront of combatting – indicate that America must reexamine its regional policy.”
Iranian President Hassan Rohani stated, at a government meeting on November 9, that the JCPOA cannot be cancelled: “Iran’s wisdom in the nuclear agreement was to ratify the JCPOA as a Security Council resolution, and not a [bilateral] agreement with a particular country or administration. Therefore, [the JCPOA] cannot be changed according to the whims of a particular administration… The results of the American election will not influence Iranian policy.” He added: “Because of its mistaken policies, America’s status in international society and in global public opinion has waned, and its growing rift with the global society and with Europe damages this status even further… The American election results attest to domestic worry and instability, which will remain for a long time. It will also take a long time until these domestic disagreements and problems are sorted out.
“America today can no longer take advantage of Iranophobia to create a global anti-Iran coalition. Iran’s policy is based on constructive cooperation with the world, on breaking the nuclear sanctions, and on economic ties with the entire world. [This policy] is now emerging, and can no longer be reversed.”
Reformist intellectual Prof. Sadegh Zibakalam explained on November 10 why Iran’s ideological camp preferred Trump to Clinton: “After the American election, there is surely much rejoicing among the streams hostile to America, and among those in Iran who persist in remaining hostile to America, because when Trump enters the White House there will be no more opportunity to ease Iran-U.S. tensions or to bring the [two] closer together… The extremists will exploit Trump’s positions and tell the moderates ‘See how wrong you were? Do you see we were right and that America can absolutely not be trusted? Look at Trump’s anti-Iran stances – do you see why we said that we cannot be fooled by America and that we shouldn’t take its friendly smile seriously?’
“It won’t be long before many in Iran long for the days when Obama was in the White House and John Kerry ran the U.S. State Department. Then they will realize how good we had it, and that we could have reached understandings with America and moved towards removing the tension – but we missed that golden opportunity.
“The Russians are also glad that an extremist is now in the White House, because they believe that they can handle extremists, but not Democrats. They believe that it is possible to get along with Reagan, Trump, and George Bush, but that it is always difficult to deal with the Democrats. Therefore, the Russians, much like our own extremists, welcome Trump’s election, while moderate liberal streams in Europe that support human rights and such do not.”
Responding to Zibakalam’s argument that Iran would welcome Trump, but not an Obama or a Clinton,the pragmatic website Asr-e Iran wrote: “Many believe that Trump’s victory will damage Iran and that Iran will encounter many problems in the post-Obama era. But in this article we will state not only that Trump’s victory will not harm Iran, but that Iran will benefit it.
“Unlike Obama and Clinton, Trump is more inclined [to deal with] domestic affairs, and does not wish to occupy himself with foreign affairs and regional crises. In his speeches, Trump openly stated that he opposes the attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan and does not want to bring America into other countries’ problems. Obama and Clinton desperately wanted to create hegemony in the region and outside it, but because America is now weaker at home, Trump wants to improve its domestic situation, and it can therefore be said that he does not wish to deal with Iran and the Middle East region.
“The most important Trump opponents now are European governments. The Europeans did not want Trump in power. But this is today’s reality, and we can say that Trump’s arrival has opened up a yawning chasm between Europe and America. The American presidents who preceded Trump had global leadership strength, because the world, and especially Europe, recognized them as world leaders. But today, not even the American elite, let alone European countries, recognize Trump as a global powerbroker. This means that Trump cannot form an international coalition against Iran or against countries that oppose America.
“Certainly, Europe in the Trump era will try to engage in its own interests, and will no longer make efforts for American interests. This is Iran’s best opportunity to take advantage of this possible Europe-U.S. gap. The Europeans have expressed interest in economic and political cooperation with Iran, and during these years [i.e. the Obama years], America was the only obstacle. In the Trump era, Iran could strengthen its ties with Europe.
“Trump is an economic player; for him, policy is determined by economic profit. Those who seek economic windfalls are never interested in wars or political crises, which can create market panic, unless the war benefits their economic interests.
“Trump’s America will be a country focused on matters that are marginal and on mere noise. This is the best time for Iran to promote its policy on the regional and international levels. The JCPOA under Trump could be the JCPOA of Iran and Europe, and because of the red-headed American president, America might slowly drift away from the JCPOA with Iran. Of course, we must stress that nothing is certain or predictable, especially with regard to Trump, and therefore the world and Iran should keep a close eye on the 45th American president.”
Foad Izadi, an assistant professor in the American Studies department at Tehran University who has a degree from Louisiana State University, claimed that the biggest gift that Trump’s win is giving Iran is that Trump will find it difficult to mobilize international support against Iran – unlike Clinton, who could have easily done so. He added that Trump would also work against Iran in Congress, as Clinton would have, but that it will take Trump a while to identify his allies in Congress, unlike Clinton who would easily have gained support for whatever she chose to do.
Iran’s Ideological Camp
Deputy Majlis Speaker Ali Motahari said: “There will be a difference between Trump’s positions during the election campaign and [those he will adopt] during his presidency. I will summarize his election positions by saying that his presidency will be better for Iran than Clinton’s would have been, because the Democrats advance [toward their goals] more meticulously and they behead you with cotton wool.
“Trump is more honest and has better positions on Syria. Additionally, he does not view Saudi Arabia positively, and he wants good relations with Russia. I believe Trump’s opposition to the JCPOA is good for Iran. In effect, they [the Americans] can do nothing. Ultimately, I think Trump’s presidency will benefit Iran.”
Mocking Western democracy, the Kayhan daily, on its November 10 front page, called Trump’s victory “Another Win For Liberal Democracy: The Madman Defeats The Mendacious Woman.” That day’s editorial explained: “The whites who voted for Trump, being mostly educated [sic], and not from the upper classes, are greatly inclined to clash with racial minorities. Yesterday, immediately after Trump’s victory, in one state, young people who support him [congregated] and chanted anti-black and anti-Muslim slogans. The domestic situation in America is not so great, and daily events, such as what happened in Ferguson, deprive citizens of security. The Trump era could be anything but a time to heal the wounds opened by racial discrimination…
“Trump’s America will absolutely not be a new America with new capabilities, and therefore his anti-Iran declarations will not come to fruition. What is certain is that in the current situation, most Republicans in today’s House and Senate wish to reduce America’s extra-regional conflicts, and will abandon the rash policies of Obama, [who sought] to solve the [crisis] dossiers of the Middle East.
“Trump cannot reinvigorate America’s weary army, and the region is also lacking forces that can seriously replace those who are interfering there on behalf of America [i.e. rebel groups]. That is, the Trump era will see a decline in the wars waged by those who fight in America’s name.
“An interesting point in the American election was crediting Russia [with influencing the result]… Now there is talk of Russia’s influence in the American elections. Donald Trump not only does not deny allegations that he depends on Russia, but his [campaign] statements regarding U.S.-Russia cooperation brought him votes. He said that if he were elected, he would consider Crimea to be under Russian rule.”
Iranian Army chief of staff Mohammad Bagheri said on November 10: “With regard to statements by the American president-elect and what he said during the election campaign – this man, who has now come to power, was too boastful. I have a suggestion for him: ‘Relax, and ask your naval commanders and officers how your forces on that [U.S.] vessel ended up [i.e. captured by Iran, in January 2016].’ Threatening Iran in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf is a joke. The might of Iran’s navy also exists in the IRGC’s land [branch], air [branch], passive defense, and Qods Force.”
Ala Al-Din Boroujerdi, chairman of the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said on November 9: “Trump’s victory shows the America people’s reaction to the [U.S.] policy of warmongering, which caused thousands of Americans to lose their lives and squandered hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars in vain… It seems that American public opinion expects the people’s problems to be addressed [now]… We must wait and see what Trump’s policy vis-à-vis the region and the Islamic world will be…
“As for implementing the JCPOA, there is a difference between Trump campaigning for election and Trump the president. It is natural that when someone is elected U.S. president, they must place themselves within the framework of laws and international relations, including the JCPOA, and must remain committed to them. Any step or action [by Trump] will be met with an appropriate [Iranian] reaction.
“If Trump wants to act according to the positions he expressed during his campaign, he must end America’s cooperation with Saudi Arabia in the evil slaughter of the Yemeni people, because Saudi Arabia cannot drown tens of thousands of oppressed Yemenis in blood and ashes without American support. Trump should, at the very least, stop the [American] shipment of weapons to Saudi Arabia.”
Yadollah Javani, senior advisor to Khamenei’s representative in the IRGC, indicated that Trump’s election campaign was different from previous campaigns, and that this has to do with the domestic situation in the U.S.: “Although Trump himself is seen as a wealthy businessman, in his election campaign he defended the poor, blacks, and the lower classes, and challenged the White House’s discriminatory and corrupt policy. Therefore, his message was popular.” Javani added that Trump becoming president was unlikely to radically shift American policy: “Neither Trump nor Clinton nor anyone else can save America, whose power is dwindling, and which has reached the end of the line as a superpower and an empire… American hostility towards [Iran’s] Islamic Revolution, its Islamic regime, and the Iranian nation lies in the arrogance of the American political regime. Thus, there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans… The clearer the enemy’s hostility becomes, the easier it is to deal with. Based on experience over the past 37 years, the Republicans’ hostility towards the Islamic Revolution and the Iranian nation has been more out in the open [than the Democrats’].”
Hossein Naqavi Hosseini, spokesman for the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said on November 9 that Trump had won because the Americans “were displeased with their rulers.” U.S. foreign policy, he said, “is fixed, and is based on interference, aggression, control, usurpation, and the beheading of nations. [But the difference is that] Democrats loot and behead with cotton wool, while Republicans [do it] cruelly with a knife.” About the JCPOA, he said: “Trump only has two options: [Either] act within the framework of the agreement, since it is not an agreement with America [only]. [Or,] if the Americans tear up the agreement, then Iran will be ready to burn it, as the leader [Khamenei] has said.”
In his main official Friday sermon, on November 11, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, Assembly of Experts member and Tehran Friday prayer leader, rebuked all those in Iran who expressed hope for a Trump presidency, contradicting the regime’s official line, and advised Trump to focus on U.S. affairs rather than seek adventures overseas: “Before the election, Iran’s policy [vis-à-vis the candidates] was logical and neutral, because our regime said that as far as that is concerned ‘they are all the same,’ and [all the candidates] take orders from somewhere else – that is, they are servants of the Zionist regime. But some websites and newspapers [in Iran] were biased, and even before the election they welcomed a particular candidate’s win. This was unwise, and it would have been better for them to adhere to the regime’s policy…
“The candidate who won the American presidency said, ‘Our country needs new roads, tunnels, and hospitals, but we do not have the necessary funds.’ Where do the [American] tax dollars go? They are spent on slaughter. I want to preach to the new president who has just come to power in America: If you continue in the path of your predecessors, be certain that your fate will be the same as theirs. They had particular characteristics, and you should not repeat their mistakes.
“The American president-elect must know that the Iranian nation exhausted previous American presidents… You called the Iranian people terrorists. If you have any decency and courage, you will apologize to them.
“Take care, because playing with the Iranian nation is like playing with a lion’s tail. I hope these words will reach your ears. You should know that Iran has a single character and a single slogan. Our character is resisting to the final man and final breath, and our slogan is that of the Imam Hussein: ‘Humiliation and disgrace are far from us.’
“I hope that the new American president is wise enough to carry out what he said when he said ‘I do not want tense [relations] with any country.’ If he does not carry this out, he will soon get to know the Iranian people…”
Majlis speaker Ali Larijani called for restraint, saying, on November 13: “The analyses and editorializing regarding the American president-elect should be more mature. We must refrain from making rash judgments and from judging prematurely. We must wait and allow [Iran’s] diplomatic apparatus to take a clear stance.”
*A. Savyon is director of the MEMRI Iran Studies Project; E. Kharrazi, and U. Kafash are Research Fellows at MEMRI*