The US and Iran could have two new presidents in the space of barely six months. Of course, the obsessive focus across the globe has been the race for the White House, with both candidates appearing to offer starkly different approaches to Iran (not that it has been much discussed). As 2021 dawns and the next US presidential term begins, attention will undoubtedly turn to Iran’s own presidential race. As it was with 2020, the US and Iran will most likely dominate the early year headlines.
In Donald Trump, the ayatollahs — who have been running their dystopian vision of Iran — met their match in terms of aggressive rhetoric. The “Great Satan” has long been the Iranian characterization of the US, regardless of who is in charge. Just prior to US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known commonly as the Iran nuclear deal, Trump summed up the dramatic shift in stance on Iran by saying they would “pay a price like few countries have ever paid” should they threaten the US. In the Trump White House, the Iranian government finally had an administration willing to bark back against their own hateful rhetoric.
Two administrations in a row have seen Iran define their foreign policy legacies. Barack Obama’s second term was, in many respects, defined by the multiparty agreement, the JCPOA. It signaled the start of the normalization of relations between the US and Iran which occurred despite vocal opposition from the Gulf states and Israel, who largely found their protests about increased funds for Iranian proxies and Iranian missile programs falling on deaf ears. This was part of a wider pattern, which saw the Obama administration drift away from traditional US allies and toward the Iranian regime and Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
There has been a marked reverse under Trump, with the selfsame allies pulled back into the White House’s embrace. Withdrawal from the nuclear deal was in large part down to their re-grasping of the presidential ear. That deal, despite the lingering protestations of Europe’s leading powers, is dead. What comes next is currently seen as being determined by the new US president. The fight to replace Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in June next year, however, is just as important.
Through his nearly eight years in office, Rouhani has been mistakenly portrayed as a moderate. Rouhani, like many leaders across Iran’s political spectrum, has always believed in the revolutionary ideals of the regime, such as exporting the revolution. Meanwhile, Iran’s crackdown on free speech and its levels of oppression have peaked on Rouhani’s watch. During his tenure, thousands of people have been executed, tortured or killed by the regime’s forces. For more than two years, the regime has brutally suppressed the unprecedented levels of social, economic and political unrest it has faced. During the widespread protests of 2017 and 2019, many slogans such as “Death to Rouhani” and “Shame on you, Khamenei — Step down from power” became popular for the first time.
Despite the Iranian president’s supposed reformer credentials, arms to violent groups and proxies such as Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis have continued to flow unabated; domestic protests with brutal reprisals have erupted on numerous occasions and Iran’s proxy network of disinformers and destabilizers seems to be stronger than ever. Until his assassination at the start of the year, the terrorist mastermind Qassem Soleimani appeared not to have seen the memo that a “reformer” president was in charge.
The collapse of the JCPOA has given Iranian hard-liners renewed confidence and impetus in their pursuit of recapturing the presidency. These figures have no interest in returning Iran to the community of responsible nations, appearing instead to be hell-bent on further alienating it from the international stage. Joe Biden’s hopes of renegotiating a new deal as an early foreign policy win would be dashed and he would do well to heed the advice of US allies living on Tehran’s doorstep. It is currently the prevailing view that Biden will begin a smoother path toward JCPOA 2.0. Closer relations with European allies and foreign policy advisers comprised almost exclusively of Obama-era appointees, it is reasoned, will unlock the Iran door that Trump slammed shut.
This possibility fails to take into account the almost certain hard-line takeover of the Iranian presidency in June. Having campaigned on the futile failure of the JCPOA, a stick used to beat Rouhani with internally, Iran’s hard-liners will not be keen to turn around and make a deal with the “Great Satan” as one of their first acts. President-elect Biden would therefore be well-advised to recognize the threat a hard-line Iran poses, with its ramped-up radical and Islamist agendas, and avoid the costly Obama-era error of failing to recognize the danger this Islamist ideology presents.