AIC's Emad Kiyaei on the U.S. Elections

Trump Means Business
Originally published on The Cipher Brief
By Emad Kiyaei, Director of External Affairs; American Iranian Council

The 2016 U.S. Presidential Election is fraught with uncertainty, for the electorate and political establishment. It is no surprise, then, that even as Americans are fumbling their way through this election labyrinth, the rest of the world is lost in the same maze. With the U.S.’s major military, economic and political presence in the Middle East, the elections cannot be ignored. Hence, the Iranian political establishment is closely observing the contest, as it will impact Iran’s own and regional security. The Iranian Government’s primary interest in the outcome of the U.S. elections is concerned with how a new U.S. administration under either candidate would affect four key areas. First, the longevity of the historic nuclear accord reached in July 2015 between Iran and the world powers (United States, United Kingdom, Russia, Germany, France and China). Second, the new administration’s foreign policy trajectory to either continue the animosity between the two countries or build upon the nascent bilateral engagement arising from the two-year nuclear negotiations. These first two issues will also impact the June 2017 Iranian Presidential elections, since the nuclear accord and economic revitalization are central to the reelection of incumbent President Rouhani. There are also interconnected issues at the regional level, particularly the crisis engulfing Syria, Iraq and Yemen, which both Washington and Tehran consider key areas of national interest impacting security, stability and the fight against extremism. The final component is the U.S. foreign policy approach to the region as a whole, with its adversaries (Iran in particular) and its relationship with key allies: Israel, Turkey and the Persian Gulf countries. Amongst the political establishment in Iran, opinions are divided into neutral onlookers, flanked by the proClinton and pro-Trump camps. In the first camp is the Iranian Government. Their official position, voiced by President Hassan Rouhani at the sidelines of the 2016 UN General Assembly in New York, is that the final winner is irrelevant. Instead, what matters is whether the new US President will “respect the rights and dignities of nations,” and is willing to reduce tensions with Iran. This stance follows international norms for states to avoid interfering in the domestic affairs of other countries.

Unofficially, many within the Rouhani Administration support Clinton. In private discussions with members of the Iranian delegation to the United Nations, most were inclined towards a Clinton presidency. This comes as no surprise. The primary reasons are the predictability of Clinton’s foreign policy as a continuation of the Obama Administration’s and a commitment to the nuclear accord. In this vein, those Iranian delegates hope that both nations will be able to continue the momentum created with the nuclear accord to press for multilateral negotiations on an array of other pressing regional issues, such as the fight against extremism and terrorism. There is, however, a concern that Clinton will be more hawkish on her policy toward Iran, with promise of expanding sanctions and reigning in Iran on its regional influence. This is seen as a means to appease disgruntled U.S. allies in the region, specifically those who are fervently against the nuclear accord and any U.S.-Iran rapprochement (in particular Israel and Saudi Arabia). Then there are those with cloaked support for Trump. While Iranians across the political spectrum shy away from publicly supporting Trump – primarily due to his inflammatory rhetoric fueling Islamophobia, xenophobic nationalism and sexism – there are those who believe a Trump presidency will benefit Iran both in bilateral and regional terms. They also find it unlikely that Trump would act out his threat to tear up the nuclear deal, as the accord is multilateral in nature and not solely a U.S.-Iran agreement. Alas, here are the underlying reasons for their support: First, Iranians who support Trump claim that he has managed to finally remove the veil of U.S. hypocrisy that preaches democracy, prosperity, and peace while in its actions has done the opposite both domestically and internationally. Claiming that Trump has consciously or inadvertently brought to surface the bitter truth that the U.S. government has contributed to more inequality, insecurity, greed, and vice by morphing into a government not for the people but the servant of powerful multinational corporations, interest groups, and the wealthy “one percent”. While the irony is not lost on them in the fact that Trump is part of that same elitist group, their claim is more in line with the long list of Iranian historical grievances with the U.S. for supporting Middle Eastern dictators, unconditional backing for Israel, and attempts at regime change in Iran. Second, a Trump presidency could improve U.S.-Iran economic ties. The history of U.S.-Iran relations since the 1979 Revolution shows that, ironically, economic relations between the two countries performed better under Republican rather than Democratic presidencies. Also, the vast number of U.S. sanctions placed on Iran was initially expanded under President Bill Clinton and became most comprehensive under the Obama presidency. The sanctions received international backing in large part thanks to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has in several occasions boasted about her role in placing the most draconian sanctions on Iran. A pro-business Republican Trump presidency, however, could put aside lofty U.S. values and principles and instead get down to business with everyone – friends and foes alike. This could be a watershed moment for U.S. companies, who for years have yearned to enter into the last lucrative emerging market country – Iran. Finally, a Trump presidency could also reconfigure the geopolitics of the Middle East. If Trump’s rhetoric is anything to go by, there is a likelihood that bloated government bureaucracy will be trimmed, laissez-faire economic policy will be implemented, immigration reform will hit a wall and all this will impact the country’s foreign policy. With an inward focus on economic growth and security issues closer to home, inevitably the U.S. footprint in global security matters will diminish and with it the fate U.S. allies have in Washington coming to their aid in an ever-increasing insecure world. This does not bode well for traditional U.S. allies and they know it. Instead, in a paradoxical way, a Trump presidency will reshape the nature and form of U.S. alliances worldwide, creating opportunities for a regional powerhouse such as Iran to garner more influence than ever before. Interestingly, Iran for years has sought a regional security apparatus in partnership with other regional countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt to bring about stability to the Middle East. Iran did have one reservation though, limiting the interference from outside powers and most notably the U.S. in the region. With a Trump presidency, Iran may finally get its wish.