November 3, 2020 | Washington Examiner

Trump or Biden, Iran’s theocracy is doomed

November 3, 2020 | Washington Examiner

Trump or Biden, Iran’s theocracy is doomed

The Islamic Republic in Iran, deeply worried about its survival, is watching the U.S. presidential election with trepidation. The reelection of President Trump would likely lead to a continuation of his “maximum pressure” campaign against the regime, including U.S. sanctions that have nearly choked off the Iranian economy.

On the other hand, former Vice President Joe Biden has promised to return to the 2015 nuclear accord reached by the Obama administration, potentially relieving the mounting economic pressure on Iran.

Some Iranian newspapers have expressed hope in a Biden presidency, while other senior regime officials have expressed deep skepticism of both the Democratic and Republican parties. Meanwhile, many Iranians opposed to the regime have expressed strong support for Trump, believing that a Biden administration would be a repeat of President Barack Obama’s conciliatory policy toward the Islamic Republic. The truth, however, is not so black and white. Recent developments in Iran and the Middle East and the difficulty of rolling back existing U.S. sanctions will continue to threaten the survival of the regime, even if a future Biden or Trump presidency decides to pursue nuclear negotiations.

The Islamic Republic has never been in worse shape. U.S. sanctions have stopped most of Iran’s energy exports and led to a massive devaluation of its currency. And the regime has access to only $9 billion of its foreign exchange reserves, making the importation of crucial goods more difficult than ever before. Meanwhile, the regime’s poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has hurt trade with neighboring countries and weakened Iran’s already meager consumer economy. The Iranian people are more dissatisfied and angry with the regime than ever before. The regime survived two major popular uprisings in 2018 and 2019; there is no guarantee that it can withstand future revolts in the face of a collapsing economy.

Developments in the Middle East have also been unkind to the regime. The recent peace agreements between Israel, on one hand, and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan, on the other, have left the Islamic Republic, the self-proclaimed leader of the “axis of resistance” against Israel, more isolated in the region. The regime in Iran still commands great sway over Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, but its empire is one of economic chaos, poverty, and social turmoil rather than a successful model worthy of emulation by other countries in the region. The Israeli-Emirati partnership, defined by technological innovation, advanced military cooperation, and freedom of movement between the two countries, holds tremendously more potential than the ossified Islamist model offered by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Biden has promised a return to “diplomacy” and the nearly dead Obama-era nuclear agreement. Trump has promised a “great” deal with the regime if he is reelected. But the regime should not expect a quick or even long-term economic recovery under either scenario. The United States has built enormous economic, diplomatic, and military advantages over the Khamenei regime in the past four years. A Biden or Trump administration is likely to exploit this advantage in the event of new nuclear negotiations. Even Biden’s key national security advisors, who have criticized Trump’s maximum pressure policy, have expressed an interest in using increased U.S. leverage to negotiate a new and potentially “stronger” nuclear agreement.

Maximum pressure has indeed provided Washington with an opportunity to fix the major flaws of Obama’s Iran deal. But any new agreement must satisfy both the Democratic and Republican parties while reassuring U.S. allies and partners, including the growing Israeli-Arab block in the Middle East. The nuclear deal was a major failure in this regard.

The Islamic Republic is unlikely to survive without a new nuclear agreement and major sanctions relief. But more crucially, the regime’s greatest enemy is its lack of legitimacy among the Iranian people. The regime has managed to quiet the population, for now, through systematic terror and the complete militarization of the political system. The Iranian people, however, will not remain quiet indefinitely. The Islamic Republic has managed to break many Iranians in the last 41 years, but its campaign of terror, assassinations, and executions has also created unbridled fury among the people.

Iranian society — vibrant, entrepreneurial, open, and creative in nature — will one day break free from its current prison and join the rest of its neighbors in forging a better future.

Alireza Nader is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he also contributes to FDD’s Iran Program and Center on Military and Political Power. Follow him on Twitter @AlirezaNader.

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Issues:

Iran Iran Global Threat Network Military and Political Power