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Iran’s presidential candidates are united on one thing: Trump’s return

by Lily Chang
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During the Iranian presidential campaign, one recurring theme dominated debates, rallies, and speeches: the long-awaited return of Donald J. Trump.

The six presidential candidates have repeatedly suggested that Trump’s victory in the 2024 U.S. presidential election is inevitable. The central question for Iranian voters as they head to the polls on Friday is which candidate is best equipped to handle a Trump presidency.

Interestingly, President Biden is barely mentioned and the numerous polls indicating a close US election are ignored. Instead, Trump’s name is invoked frequently.

“Wait and see what happens when Trump comes,” Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a cleric and candidate, said in a recent televised debate. “We need to prepare for negotiations.” Alireza Zakani, the mayor of Tehran, accused his rivals of being “Trump-phobic” in a debate, saying only he could handle the situation effectively.

Pourmohammadi’s campaign posters depict him confronting Trump, with the caption: “The person who can stand in front of Trump is me.”

Iranians have legitimate reasons to be cautious about another Trump presidency. Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the nuclear deal with Iran, despite UN inspectors confirming Iran’s compliance. Biden attempted to revive the agreement, but without success.

Trump also imposed severe economic sanctions on Iran, targeting its oil revenues and international banking transactions. These sanctions have continued under Biden, contributing to Iran’s economic woes, including a plummeting currency and soaring inflation.

Analysts point out that Trump’s potential return highlights the importance of foreign policy in the election. All six candidates – five conservatives and one reformist – recognize that economic support is closely linked to Tehran’s international relations.

“The potential return of the Trump administration has become a bogeyman in presidential debates,” said Vali Nasr, a former Obama administration official and professor at Johns Hopkins University.

“Extremists argue that their persistence will tame Trump, while moderates and reformists believe Trump will respond to the extremists with more pressure on Iran, suggesting they are in a better position to change the dialogue with the United States,” he added.

Concerns about Trump’s return were present in Iranian political circles even before the special presidential elections, which will be held to replace President Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash in May. According to two Iranian officials, the Foreign Ministry established an informal working group in the spring to prepare for Trump’s potential return.

Iran has entered into indirect talks with the United States several times this year, through Oman and Qatar, for a prisoner exchange and to ease regional tensions. Discussions about a return to the nuclear deal have involved both the Trump and Biden administrations.

The officials, who spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said that if Trump is reelected, Iran would continue indirect negotiations but not meet him directly. They weighed whether it would be wiser to wait and negotiate with Trump rather than reach a deal with Biden, only to see it unraveled by a future Republican president.

Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, the conservative speaker of Iran’s parliament and the front-runner in the presidential race, said: “Faced with an enemy like Trump who does not behave with integrity, we must be calculating in our behavior.” Ghalibaf, a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, stressed that restoring the nuclear deal and reducing sanctions were his top priorities. He warned that failure to take timely decisions could force Iran to capitulate to Trump or create internal tensions.

Trump has consistently maintained that his policy of maximum pressure on Iran was intended to force concessions on its nuclear program, not regime change. He defended the policy last week in a virtual interview with the All In podcast.

“I would have made a fair deal with Iran; I would have gone along with Iran,” Trump said. He said his primary goal was to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. “I had them at a point where you could negotiate,” he added, a claim disputed by analysts. “A child could have made a deal with them.”

In Iran’s theocratic system, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has the final say on major state affairs, including U.S. negotiations and nuclear policy. However, the president sets the domestic agenda and influences foreign policy.

There is concern among voters about Trump, said a campaign staffer for reform candidate Dr. Masoud Pezeshkian, who requested anonymity. The staffer said voters have reached out to him on social media to ask about Pezeshkian’s plans to counter Trump.

Dr. Pezeshkian has made former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who helped secure the 2015 nuclear deal, the face of his foreign policy. However, his advisers have said he would choose Abbas Araghchi, Zarif’s deputy and a member of the 2015 negotiating team, as his foreign minister.

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