Iran is remaining officially neutral in the United States’ upcoming 2020 elections, expressing skepticism that even a Democratic victory over President Donald Trump would immediately ease the soaring tensions between Washington and Tehran, an Iranian official told Newsweek.
As Democratic frontrunners vie over the primary position to challenge Trump in November, each candidate has criticized the president’s decision to leave a multilateral nuclear deal with Iran and impose strict sanctions against the Islamic Republic. However, should a Democrat win this year’s U.S. national election, an Iranian official said, the president-elect would be pressured by forces at home and abroad to adopt a hardline policy against Tehran.
“Our general understanding is that if a Democrat is elected, there will be a tremendous effort, domestic and international, to influence the president’s approach to Iran,” the Iranian official told Newsweek.
“Both within the United States and outside, they will try to influence the new president,” the official added. “There are certain lobbies within Washington and foreign lobbies working against us.”
The Trump administration’s 2018 exit from the nuclear deal, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, came to the dismay of its other signatories but was welcomed by powerful critics who are eager to keep any future plans to renew the agreement off the table. Without a diplomatic track, however, a wave of unrest has descended across the Middle East, especially in Iraq and the Persian Gulf.
Now, nearly two years of heavy U.S.-imposed economic restrictions—as well as additional political and military pressure—has done considerable damage to Iran’s trust in the White House as an institution. Still, the door to new negotiations remained open should either Trump or his potential successor choose to pursue it.
The JCPOA was adopted in June 2015 by Iran and the P5+1, an international grouping involving China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. The agreement lifted international sanctions against Iran in exchange for the country agreeing to severely restrict its nuclear program, which Iranian officials have always maintained was strictly for civil purposes.
The agreement was considered a milestone in U.S.-Iran relations, long mired by decades of mutual antagonism since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that ousted a West-backed monarchy in Tehran. The accord was met widely with international acclaim but had notable detractors, including conservatives in both Washington and Tehran, as well as some leading U.S. partners in the Middle East.
Israel and Saudi Arabia—Iran’s top two regional adversaries—criticized the nuclear deal, arguing it did little to curb Iran’s missile activity, its support for regional militias and its alleged path toward obtaining a nuclear weapon. Both nations are wary of Iranian regional activities and their governments wield considerable clout within Washington, where the Trump administration fostered warm ties that the Iranian official argued would not disappear under Democratic leadership.
“There are Israeli lobbies, Saudi lobbies that will be trying to get close to the new administration,” the Iranian official told Newsweek.
Among the prominent lobbies in Washington is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has been an outspoken opponent of the JCPOA and any attempt to return to it. The group’s annual policy conference regularly draws up to two-thirds of Congress, but leading Democrats eyeing a presidential run skipped last year’s event.
This year, four progressive political groups—MoveOn, Indivisible, Working Families Party and IfNotNow—have called on all Democratic Party candidates to boycott AIPAC’s conference next month in Washington. While Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has not ruled out attending the gathering this time around, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren affirmed she would once again sit it out.
Former Vice President Joe Biden said Monday he would go in hopes of convincing the lobby and its supporters “to change their position” and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said he was unaware of the conference and had not made any scheduling decisions.
There was also the possibility that the embattled nuclear agreement might not even make it to November.
The Trump administration has so far expressed no interest in returning to its nuclear deal obligations, even after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani suggested in September that such a move may be a precursor to talks for another, potentially wider-ranging agreement. Amid this diplomatic stalemate, the rift between Iran and the West has widened.
In response to the U.S.’ killing of one of Iran’s most senior military leaders and Europe’s failure to normalize trade ties, Tehran activated a JCPOA clause that permits it to steadily reduce its nuclear commitments. Last month, France, Germany and the U.K. activated the agreement’s dispute resolution mechanism in response.
Iranian and European diplomats have expressed a desire to resolve the matter before it reached the United Nations Security Council, where the U.S. could use its permanent member status to veto any resolution to resurrect sanctions relief. An underlying mutual lack of faith among signatories, however, meant it would be difficult to return to the initial detente that allowed the deal to manifest in the first place.
“The nuclear agreement is a very important agreement both in terms of the nuclear issue and it was a test for the U.S., Iran, Europe and its partners to see if the two sides could get together and address the issue, if they could resolve the issue through peaceful means,” the Iranian official told Newsweek.
Multilateral negotiations could once again take place if a U.S. president, regardless of his or her political affiliation, honors the original deal.
“What we need is honest implementation of what was agreed with the U.S. and others, if we see this honest implementation, I believe the U.S. can join talks between Iran and the P5+1,” the Iranian official added.
It’s not just the nuclear deal keeping the two countries apart. Iran’s ties with partnered militias, its pursuit of advanced missile technology and its hostility toward Israel continue to rankle even progressive Democrats.
Though Washington and Tehran have found themselves over the years with occasional common foes—such as the Taliban and the Islamic State militant group, better known as ISIS—the Trump administration’s designation of the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group has officiated Iran’s status as an enemy combatant.
The slaying of Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani and retaliatory missile strikes on U.S. bases in Iraq also marked the first direct exchange between the countries since the 1980s. Although it represented a departure from feuding, the nuclear deal, even if reimplemented by a shift in power, would not alone mend long-tortured ties between two foes.
While both experts and U.S. officials have warned that Iran may try to exert influence on the upcoming presidential election, a loss for Trump is not necessarily viewed as a win by the Islamic Republic.
“The other aspect is that there are many issues between Iran and the United States in the past four decades,” the Iranian official told Newsweek. “These are complex issues and we don’t have any illusion that even if a Democrat was in the Oval Office, all these problems with Iran would be resolved overnight.”
“We are not naive,” the official added.