Iranian presidential candidates united on one thing: Trump’s return

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During the Iranian presidential campaign, a recurring theme has dominated debates, rallies, and speeches: the anticipated 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 issue for Iranian voters, as they head to the polls on Friday, is determining which candidate is best equipped to handle Trump’s presidency.

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

“You wait and see what will happen when Trump comes,” stated Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a cleric and candidate, during a recent televised debate. “We need to prepare for negotiations.” Alireza Zakani, the mayor of Tehran, accused his rivals of having “Trump-phobia” in a debate, asserting that only he could manage the situation effectively.

Pourmohammadi’s campaign posters depict him facing off against 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 U.S. from the nuclear agreement with Iran, despite UN inspectors confirming Iran’s compliance. Biden has attempted to revive the deal, but has been unsuccessful.

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

Analysts note that Trump’s potential return underscores the importance of foreign policy in the election. All six candidates—five conservatives and one reformist—acknowledge that economic relief is closely tied 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.

“The extremists argue that their persistence will tame Trump, while the moderates and reformists believe that Trump will respond to the extremists with greater pressure on Iran, suggesting they are better positioned to change the dialogue with the U.S.,” he added.

Concerns about Trump’s return have been present in Iranian political circles since before the special presidential election, which is being held to replace President Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash in May. The Foreign Ministry set up an informal working group in the spring to prepare for Trump’s potential return, according to two Iranian officials.

Iran has engaged in indirect negotiations with the U.S. multiple 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 would not meet with him directly. They considered whether it might be wiser to wait and deal with Trump rather than reaching an agreement with Biden, only to have it undone by a future Republican president.

Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, the conservative speaker of the Iranian parliament and a frontrunner in the presidential race, commented, “When faced with an enemy like Trump who does not behave with integrity, we must be calculative in our behavior.” Ghalibaf, a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, emphasized that restoring the nuclear deal and reducing sanctions are his top priorities. He warned that failing to make timely decisions could force Iran to either capitulate to Trump or create internal tensions.

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

“I would have made a fair deal with Iran; I would have gotten along with Iran,” Trump said. He asserted that his main goal was to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. “I had them at a point where you could have negotiated,” he added, a statement 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 issues, including U.S. negotiations and nuclear policy. However, the president sets the domestic agenda and influences foreign policy.

There is voter concern about Trump, said a member of the reformist candidate Dr. Masoud Pezeshkian’s campaign staff, who requested anonymity. The staffer indicated that voters had reached out via 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 said he would choose Abbas Araghchi, Zarif’s deputy and a member of the 2015 negotiation team, as his foreign minister.

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