Iran’s presidential candidates are united on one thing: Trump’s return

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During the Iranian presidential campaign, a recurring theme dominated debates, rallies and speeches: the long-awaited return of Donald J. Trump.

The six presidential candidates have repeatedly suggested that Trump’s victory in the 2024 US presidential election is inevitable. The central question for Iranian voters as they go to the polls on Friday is determining which candidate is best equipped to handle Trump’s presidency.

Interestingly, President Biden is barely mentioned and the numerous polls indicating a close election in the United States are ignored. Instead, Trump’s name is often invoked.

“Wait and see what will happen when Trump comes,” said Mostafa Pourmohammadi, a cleric and candidate, during a recent televised debate. “We need to prepare for negotiations.” Alireza Zakani, mayor of Tehran, accused his rivals of having “Trumpphobia” in a debate, saying only he can handle the situation effectively.

Pourmohammadi’s campaign posters depict him facing Trump, with the caption: “The person who can stand in front of Trump is me.”

Iranians have legitimate reasons to be wary of another Trump presidency. Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal with Iran, despite UN inspectors confirming Iran’s compliance. Biden attempted to revive the agreement, but without success.

Trump also imposed tough economic sanctions on Iran, targeting its oil revenues and international banking transactions. These sanctions have continued under Biden, contributing to Iran’s economic woes, including a collapsing currency and soaring inflation.

Analysts note that Trump’s potential comeback underscores the importance of foreign policy in the election. All six candidates — five conservatives and one reformist — acknowledge that economic support 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.

“Extremists argue that their persistence will tame Trump, while moderates and reformists believe Trump will respond to the extremists with more pressure on Iran, suggesting they are in a better position to change the dialogue with the United States,” he added.

Concerns about Trump’s return have been present in Iranian political circles since before the special presidential elections, which will be held to replace President Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash in May. According to two Iranian officials, the Foreign Ministry established an informal working group in the spring to prepare for Trump’s potential return.

Iran has repeatedly engaged in indirect negotiations with the United States 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 re-elected, Iran will continue indirect negotiations but will not meet with him directly. They considered whether it might be wiser to wait and deal with Trump rather than reach a deal with Biden, only to have it undone by a future Republican president.

Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, the conservative speaker of the Iranian parliament and favorite in the presidential race, commented: “When we are 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, stressed that restoring the nuclear deal and reducing sanctions are his top priorities. He warned that not making timely decisions could force Iran to capitulate to Trump or create internal tensions.

Trump has consistently said that his policy of maximum pressure 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 stated that his primary goal was to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. “I had them at a point where they could have been negotiated,” he added, a claim 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 concern among voters about Trump, said a member of reform candidate Dr. Masoud Pezeshkian’s campaign staff, who requested anonymity. The staffer indicated that voters have been reaching 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 negotiating team, as his foreign minister.

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