Trump or Clinton? Republican or Democrat? Which US presidential hopeful would be most in the interests of Iran, under the current circumstances? The question has undoubtedly been considered by many people. This issue, and more fundamentally, the way the two American parties deal with the Middle East and Iran, is discussed in an interview with Nasser Hadiyan, who teaches international relations at the University of Tehran.
He says the victory of a radical figure like Trump will not put Iran at a great disadvantage, because he is a businessman and has little legitimacy in the international community. Hadiyan, however, thinks it is unlikely that Trump makes it to the White House. He considers Hillary Clinton as the most likely next president, and believes that she will take a harder line on Iran and on the implementation of the nuclear deal (JCPOA), compared with President Barack Obama.
The interview took place at the Strategic Research Centre of Iran’s Expediency Council in Tehran. The university professor didn’t want to dwell on the history of Iran-US ties, but in summarizing the current relationship, he predicted a difficult future for political relations between the two sides. He even believes that a strategic headquarters should be established to regulate certain issues in this field.
Given the ongoing campaigns for US presidential elections, we would like to have a comprehensive overview of the two parties, Republicans and Democrats, with regards to the Middle East and Iran. To start with, I want to know whether the two camps have a fixed behavioural pattern in dealing with the Middle East, and whether they have followed the same pattern in the history of their party.
The general belief is that the two parties follow fixed behavioural patterns. In general, the Republicans are realists and the Democrats attach importance to a series of human rights issues. But I do not totally agree with this view. We should not forget that there are councils of experts in all organizations and bodies. These councils remain intact, whether they are in the foreign ministry, in the CIA or the Pentagon. This means that when political figures take on certain issues, they will not be able to make decisions that are very different from the experts’ opinions.
Therefore, once they are elected and start their job, they become familiar with what they are and are not supposed to do. Thereafter, no considerable fluctuation is seen in their performance: they stick to the defined lines and try not to cross them.
Although it might seem that there isn’t a big difference as to which party’s candidate wins the elections, they are not totally the same. For example, under the tenure of Republican George W. Bush, the neoconservatives came to power. They believed in interfering in others’ affairs, and were totally prepared to use force. The things they did would not have been expected from such realist Republicans as George H.W. Bush. Or, for example Obama, who can be regarded as a symbol of realism, did not easily wage war and use military means on the pretext of human rights and fighting against terrorism. He resists. He even refused to stick to the red lines he had set himself on Syria, and the use of chemical weapons there, and showed a strong resistance to the use of force.
So the patterns have changed in some cases?
Yes. Within the past two decades, we have seen that what people thought of as a behavioural pattern for the two US parties has undergone certain changes. By the way, we should not forget the councils of experts, which puts certain limits on US foreign policy.
Based on what factors does the council impose such limits?
They consider various factors. One of them is the US economic situation. When economic resources are limited and under pressure, it is difficult to put military aggression on the national agenda. Another factor is the power structure. When the government and the congress are in line with each other, or when two different parties lead the two bodies, certain limitations are set for the president.
The other factor is their allies. For example, how will the Europeans treat the newly-elected president of the United States? How much legitimacy will he/she have in their view, and how much can he/she mobilise them in achieving a common objective? For instance, Obama managed to impose and implement severe sanctions against Iran thanks to his legitimacy. Although Bill Clinton had earlier managed to impose certain sanctions, he failed to make them operational. Obama, however, had both the capability and legitimacy, and made the world go along with him, while for example, George W. Bush lacked the legitimacy to do such a thing.
Therefore, the US president’s position, the way Europeans think about him/her, and the legitimacy issue all affect the formation of US foreign policy, particularly its relation with the Middle East.
There is another factor: AIPAC, or the pro-Israel lobby. They play an important role in forming US foreign policy in the Middle East – not in Asia or in Latin America, solely in the Middle East. They can play an important role in any policy planned to be adopted on the region.
Given the policies of the two parties and the history of their performance in the Middle East, we [Iranians] have traditionally feared Republicans taking power, whereas the Democrat Obama also imposed and implemented anti-Iran sanctions, and did not do much in our interest.
This is not the general interpretation. It is generally believed that Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, prefer the Republicans. The Shah of Iran, for example, had better ties with the Republicans. Or after the 1979 Revolution, the concession Iran gave to Reagan vis-à-vis Carter was an influential factor in the latter’s defeat. There is a general perception that we can work with the Republicans more easily than the Democrats. I do not agree with that, though.
What main objectives do the two parties, Republicans and Democrats, seek in the Middle East? Specifically speaking, how is their behavioural defined in the Middle East?
Based on what they themselves say, the security of Israel is a top priority for them. Also, the safe transfer of oil through the main pathways, including the Persian Gulf; the stabilisation of the region; and their support for what they call “allied governments” are among their principles.
These are the general principles on which both parties are in agreement. Of course they might have different opinions on supporting a particular ally: one of them defends arms supplies and the other talks about stabilisation through democracy. They might have different views on particular cases, but the difference does not really reflect their party and partisan view.
Right now, for example, if Trump wins the elections, his views will be different from those of Ted Cruz, and Cruz’s will be different from the others. This is the same among Democrats as well. Bernie Sanders’ viewpoints are different from those of Clinton. All of them, however, have the objective of supporting Israel and ensuring its security.
What is the policy of the two parties on Iran?
Currently, the US is following a policy that I would call “Control plus selective interaction”. US general policy is to control Iran, and this control has different indicators: in economics, they limit our capabilities; in terms of security, they put restrictions on our military capabilities; in diplomacy, they try to isolate us diplomatically; and in politics, they do their best to tell the world that Iran is not trustworthy. The US has pursued these policies to control Iran, so I have termed it the “control policy”.
However, whenever they needed, they have had selective interactions with Iran in particular cases including the Afghanistan issue, or Iraq, and recently the JCPOA. These are the selective interactions Iran and the US have had. The next US president will also follow the same general policy: “Control plus selective interaction”.
We clinched the JCPOA during Obama’s term, and using your words, a selective interaction took place. Many analysts believed that it was unlikely for Obama, or even a Democrat administration, to show such a great amount of flexibility. What is your opinion about Obama’s behaviour towards Iran?
If we want to talk about the JCPOA in particular, we should say that Obama, for certain reasons, wanted to resolve Iran’s nuclear program issue, and this was a priority for him. Although there was a possibility of war, he did not want to wage one, and the deal was a very good alternative to a war.
He also knew that the sanctions would not work, and a possible war couldn’t help him achieve what he wanted, either. This was the least expensive way to help the US realize its objective, which was preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
Obama had a more important objective as well: He wanted to see whether he was able to settle the problem with Iran or not. American presidents, in their second terms, want to leave their own legacy in history. For example, a book written 200 years from now on US history would mention Obama Care in relation to domestic policy. If he manages to resolve Iran’s issue completely, this would be his special achievement in foreign policy. Then, he will be able to say “I was the one who solved the problem with Iran, 37 years after their Revolution.” He hoped that he would manage to resolve the issue and establish diplomatic ties with Tehran while making Iran give certain concessions. Therefore, he resolved to make the deal with Iran.
Of course, this would be a great advantage for any US president to solve the issue of relations with Iran. Obama was thus prepared to show even more flexibility and pay a heavier price to resolve the issue. The cost of the JCPOA was not low for Obama. He was faced with opposition even among the Democrats, but he managed to gain such a huge advantage. I am not sure, however, that someone like Clinton, who is Obama’s fellow party member, would have been ready to pay such a price to clinch the deal.
If we accept the presupposition that Clinton will be the Democrats’ final candidate in the upcoming US presidential elections, would her stance on Iran remain as harsh as it is today?
Yes. Any of the candidates, whether Republicans or Democrats, will most likely take stricter positions towards Iran compared with Obama.
Especially given the fact that Clinton, as compared with John Kerry, used to take a harder line on Iran when she was the Secretary of State.
That is right, but she is not one of those people who say they will tear up the JCPOA. Of course, even if those people come to power, they will continue the nuclear deal, but will implement it strictly. The power structure in the US puts limits on everyone.
So it will be more difficult for Iran to deal with the Republicans?
No, working with Trump will be the easiest option. Donald Trump is the best choice for Iran.
Why do you think so?
First of all, Trump is a “businessman”. Businessmen usually regard deals as important, and do not unilaterally terminate a contract. He will be strict in following up the Iran deal, but will remain committed to it.
Secondly, he does not have the required international legitimacy, and even right now, the world is against him. Inside the US, there is a deep division. I predict that Trump will be the Republicans’ final candidate, but Clinton will win the US presidential elections. Even if the Republicans decide to violate the party norms and do away with Trump, his replacement will not be able to win the elections in two to three months.
Even if Trump is chosen as the final candidate, he will lose. That is exactly the same as what happened for Marine Le Pen in France. Everyone will be afraid of Trump’s victory, and even many Republicans will vote for Clinton to avoid Trump. This is not because Hillary is a favourable candidate. No, she has a lot of critics and opponents, too. This is because Trump is considered a very unfavourable candidate due to his stances against Latin Americans, women, the US Muslim population, and his remarks about Mexico, Canada, and so on.
Therefore, many Republicans will probably vote for Clinton to prevent him from winning the elections. Assuming the impossible, even if Trump becomes president, he will not have the legitimacy to impose fresh sanctions against Iran and terminate the JCPOA. The only thing he would be able to do is to wage a war. We should be careful about that. Of course, if that happens, the world would not support him. So the best option for us is a Trump victory.
Clinton, however, has legitimacy and a normal personality. If the current circumstances remain unchanged, Clinton will win the presidential elections, because neither Cruz nor Kasich – if chosen by the Republicans – have enough time to win the elections. Neither can Sanders be the final candidate of Democrats. If Clinton wins, we will not have an easy job in dealing with her. She knows politics, has been Secretary of State, and has lived in the White House with her husband. After her election, she will immediately initiate her plans for Iran. She will continue with JCPOA implementation and work on other issues related to Iran in a strict way.
Is it possible that negotiations begin on other issues related to Iran under Clinton? For example the talks on their allegations about Iran’s support for terrorism or the human rights conditions?
Yes, it is possible, but it is not very likely. The negotiations over the nuclear issue began when Clinton was Secretary of State. But neither we nor they are really interested in talking about other issues. Maybe they are more interested, but we are not at all willing to do so.
How close is Clinton to Israel and the Arabs? Can such relations be detrimental for us?
Israel’s lobby in the US has good ties with both parties. It has influence in both parties, spends money, and has a strong infrastructure. They have good relations with Clinton, and will continue to have influence over the Middle East. The policy of controlling Iran will be strictly pursued. This will also be the case for Saudi Arabia. The Saudis may even be harsher and more extreme than Israelis in some cases. Saudi Arabia is now looking for a war with Iran, and to disintegrate the country finally. The Saudis’ influence in Washington is much less than that of Israel, but they have their own funding and lobby groups, and exert their own pressure.
The important point here is that these two (Israel and Saudi Arabia) want to make a strategic change in the region by introducing Tehran as an enemy and putting others under pressure over the issue of Iran. Such a change can help Israel resolve many of its problems, including the legitimacy problem it always had in the Middle East. The issue can be settled by Tel Aviv’s friendship with Riyadh. In other words, they will replace Israel, the main enemy of the Arabs, with Iran.
This is currently under investigation. US foreign policy might totally support the project. In this project, the Persian Gulf Arab littoral states will downplay the Daesh (ISIS) terrorist group by approaching Israel, and will introduce Iran as the main sponsor of terrorism, which should be confronted. The strategic replacement – the replacement of Middle East’s main enemy, Israel, with Iran – is very dangerous.
So should we anticipate difficult years ahead in foreign policy?
Don’t we have any lobby group in the US to prevent such things from happening or make them less costly?
We do, but the power of our lobby is not at all comparable with those of Israel and Saudi Arabia. They have established a powerful base there. They have huge amounts of money, resources, and media facilities.
What should we do to prepare for this dangerous future? What should be the priorities of our foreign policy?
We should first be aware that Saudi Arabia and Israel are trying to convince the US to start a war against Iran. Currently, Obama will not do that, and if Clinton wins the elections, she wouldn’t easily make such a decision. What we should do is organise our potential allies outside the country to prevent such a war from happening. The possibility of such a war is not high, maybe around 5%, but this is still too great, and we should have plans, and even establish a national headquarters for it. The HQ should then consider all solutions.