Some scholars, policy analysts and politicians believe that, if Joe Biden were to win the US presidential election in November, US-Iranian relations would return to what they looked like during the Obama era and Tehran would again prosper economically and politically, strengthening the regime’s hold on power.
Their argument goes that Biden will rejoin the nuclear deal, sanctions against Iran will be lifted, billions of dollars will flow into Tehran’s treasury, and the pressure on the Iranian leaders will thus be removed. But it is not that easy. For many reasons, Iran’s golden era during the Obama administration will not come back, even if Biden is elected.
First of all, some of the sanctions passed by the Trump administration cannot simply be revoked by the next US president because they were passed by an overwhelming vote in Congress, with support from both sides of the aisle. Some of the most important sanctions imposed on the Iranian regime were passed via the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) of 2017. This is a key US sanctions law against Iran and it will continue to be a robust blow to Tehran. CAATSA targeted Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for its terrorist activities and destabilizing behavior, and for being a national security threat to the US and its allies. Any individual or entity directly or indirectly linked to the IRGC or its affiliates was also sanctioned as a result of this important act.
The IRGC is the backbone of the clerical establishment in Iran. It controls significant sections of the country’s economic and ideological centers. In 2017, the Washington office of the opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran released a 175-page book entitled “The Rise of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Financial Empire,” in which it demonstrated that the IRGC controls more than half of Iran’s gross domestic product and owns several major economic powerhouses and religious endowments, such as Astan Quds Razavi in the northeastern city of Mashhad. The group also published another book in 2017 that reported on 15 terrorist training centers in Iran, where the IRGC provides ideological, military and tactical training to foreign recruits, who are later dispatched around the Middle East and beyond to carry out terrorist activities.
Some senior IRGC officials have a vital say in Tehran’s domestic and foreign policy and its support for proxy groups. The IRGC is also engaged in the domestic repression of protesters and dissidents, the suppression of the freedoms of speech, press and assembly, and the imprisonment of opponents. Many human rights and political activists, particularly those who are suffering under the iron rule of the IRGC and the ruling clerics, are in favor of the US sanctions.
The sanctioning of the IRGC is a powerful move and will continue to have severe consequences for Iran and its leaders, even if Biden does become president and returns to the nuclear deal. Every country, organization and individual that deals with Iran will have to be extremely cautious. Almost every major transaction with Iran is conducted, either directly or indirectly, through the IRGC due to the fact that it has the largest stake in Iran’s economy and political affairs. CAATSA will remain detrimental to Tehran’s potential trade with Western companies as it will make other nations hesitant to do business with Iran due to the potential repercussions from the US.
Another reason that Iran won’t see a return to the days of the Obama era is that the regime is extremely unpopular at home. The disaffectedness of the population and the protests and demonstrations against the regime will not go away if Biden becomes president and rejoins the nuclear deal. Thousands of protesters have been killed by the IRGC in the last few years. According to a September report by Amnesty International, various branches of Iran’s government are involved in these abuses and crimes. The report stated: “Iran’s police, intelligence and security forces, and prison officials have committed, with the complicity of judges and prosecutors, a catalogue of shocking human rights violations, including arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance, torture and other ill-treatment, against those detained.”
Despite the regime’s deployment of brute force, the deep frustration and anti-regime anger shared by many in the country has remained intact and will most likely continue to rise.
So, even if Biden does become US president, the Iranian regime will still be doomed. Its leaders will continue to face unprecedented levels of pressure both domestically and regionally.