Iran policy most definitely on ballot in US election

Whoever is president will have to rethink Washington’s approach to Islamic Republic, experts say

Attendees wave flags as Iranian Americans from across California converge in Los Angeles to participate in the California Convention for a Free Iran and to express support for nationwide protests in Iran from Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 11, 2020. (photo credit: REUTERS/ PATRICK T. FALLON)
Attendees wave flags as Iranian Americans from across California converge in Los Angeles to participate in the California Convention for a Free Iran and to express support for nationwide protests in Iran from Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 11, 2020.
(photo credit: REUTERS/ PATRICK T. FALLON)
In addition to deciding which presidential candidate can best heal the economy and tackle the coronavirus pandemic, US voters will choose the man they think has the best approach for dealing with Iran.
To do that, voters must evaluate the current US strategy.
That strategy was the subject of last week’s Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall webinar meeting titled “The Future of US Policy on Iran: Analyzing Trump’s ‘Maximum Pressure Campaign’ & What to Expect in the Future.”
While most of the experts said the current policy had not worked, this conclusion was by no means universal.
Arash Azizi, a researcher at New York University and author of The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, The US and Iran’s Global Ambitions, which will be published on November 24, argues that the election will be pivotal in determining the course of the Iran-US relationship.
In evaluating whether the current policy has worked, voters must decide whether leaving the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), informally known as the Iran nuclear deal, was a sound decision, and what is the best course going forward.
“As always, the No. 1 determinant of what US policy is going to be is what kind of president we are going to have, and we will find out in a few weeks,” Azizi told The Media Line.
“Joe Biden has said he would bring back the Iran deal in some sort of altered form and that he will have a very different policy toward the country,” he added.
Azizi says that whoever is the US president come January will probably reach some type of agreement with Iran due to the latter’s terrible economic situation.
“It is likely the Islamic Republic will have to cut some sort of deal with the US in order to guarantee its survival, although it is hard to know exactly what that would look like,” he said. “It will submit at some point… because of the massive pressure it has come under.”
Azizi adds that whatever the nature of that new deal might be, it will not be as good as the 2015 agreement.
“We won’t have the same type of support the Iranian regime had for [the JCPOA]. That type of Iranian-American-European regional agreement was extraordinary, and once it was done, the entire world, except for [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu], agreed with it,” he said.
“We can’t easily go back to that, especially because now Iran is in a dire economic crisis. It has become a new nation, really,” he said, adding that the regime might collapse.
“There is always a chance for political change in Iran. Iran analysts usually don’t take that possibility into account,” he said.
“There are all these jokes about the regime being in power for 40 years and that it is never going to collapse. Just because something has been going on for a long time doesn’t mean it’s going to go on forever. I think it’s very likely it won’t survive after this supreme leader,” he stated, referring to the period subsequent to the rule of 81-year-old Ali Khamenei.
Going forward, Azizi argues for a less severe stance on the Islamic Republic.
“We should try to establish better relations with Iran, which is always better in the short and long term as… it will actually strengthen the forces for change inside Iran,” he said. “I think policy should be geared toward openness.”
Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington, argues that President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign, which is designed to get Iran to the negotiable table for a better deal by imposing economic sanctions, has not achieved its objective.
“The maximum pressure campaign has worked in the sense that it has extremely hurt the Iranian economy, but it has not changed Iran policy toward the US or in the region,” he told The Media Line.
“One of the reasons it didn’t work is because sanctions alone were never going to bring the United States to the finish line. It requires more pressure on the political front, and maybe even the threat of military force,” he noted.
“The Trump administration needed to be far more clear about its vision in terms of what [the US president] expects of the Iranians,” he added.
“The Iranians,” he said, “are in a position where they don’t know what Trump really wants, whether it’s [changes to] the nuclear program, the nature of the regime, Iran in the region or all of the above.”
Vatanka argues that current US policy has not worked because Trump has made it part of his domestic, as opposed to global, agenda.
“Putting sanctions on Iran and claiming that we’re winning is domestic American politics [aimed at] a base that mostly couldn’t care less about Iran, but that doesn’t make [this approach] into a key foreign policy mission, which is what the Trump Administration set out to achieve,” he said. “They did not do enough multilateral coalition building against the Islamic Republic.”
Vatanka says that there is more of a chance that Tehran will negotiate a deal under a Biden administration, as he does not believe Iran will be willing to negotiate with Trump.
“If Trump remains in power, we are going to stay where we are for another four years,” he said.
“The Iranians are going to get poorer and poorer, but they’re so stubborn and set in their ways, they are going to just take the blows and the pain, and not make compromises,” he prophesized.
“If there is a Biden presidency, you have an opportunity for the Iranians to save face. They may talk to him in a way they could have talked to Trump but chose not to,” he said.
Still, Vatanka cautions that no matter who is elected on November 3, Iran will need to dismantle the “anti-American system” it put in place four decades ago in order to have talks that lead to change, arguing that whichever candidate wins, he must make important decisions on policy.
“I’m calling for a moment of reckoning in terms of being truthful about what American policy is about,” he said.
“[Either] cut a deal with them as they are, or [promote] regime change,” Vatanka said. “You have to ultimately choose between the two.”
Not all the experts believed that Washington’s maximum pressure campaign had failed.
Dr. Saeed Ghasseminejad, senior Iran and financial economics adviser at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, said at the conference: “The unilateral sanctions have worked very well, but we lost 16 months because the Trump Administration was trying to get the Europeans to the table, forcing them to work with the US administration. [That] didn’t work.”
Ghasseminejad contends that the next president will reap the benefits of the Trump Administration leaving the nuclear deal.
“Whoever comes in 2021 has the leverage over these countries and companies, and he can get a better deal if he wants,” the analyst said.
Nazenin Ansari, publisher and managing editor of two independent media outlets focusing on Iran – Kayhan London and Kayhan Life – believes that the current US leadership has done a great deal for the democratic reformers in Iran, who, she believes, are the key to a more prosperous future for the country.
“My biggest US foreign policy concern going forward is not paying enough attention to the voices of the people who are against the regime,” Ansari told The Media Line.
“President Trump has done more than [any other president] before,” she stated, “and now they have more air to breathe.”
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