Iranian presidential candidates agree on one thing: Trump is coming

Throughout the Iranian presidential campaign, in debates, demonstrations and speeches, a singular presence hovered: Donald J. Trump.

To hear the six candidates tell it, the former president's victory in the race for the White House in 2024 is a foregone conclusion. The pressing question facing Iranian voters as they go to the polls on Friday, they say, is who is best suited to deal with him.

They almost never mention President Biden and they never mention the numerous polls that suggest the US election will be extremely close. Instead, Trump's name is invoked again and again.

“Wait and see what will happen when Trump comes,” one candidate, the cleric Mostafa Pourmohammadi, said during a recent televised debate. “We need to prepare for negotiations.” Another candidate, Alireza Zakani, mayor of Tehran, accused his rivals in a debate of having “Trump-phobia”, insisting that only he could handle it.

In one of Pourmohammadi's campaign posters, he and Trump are face to face and looking down on each other. “The person who can stand in front of Trump is me,” he reads.

Iranians have ample reason to be wary of another Trump presidency. It was Trump who unilaterally withdrew the United States from Iran's agreement with world powers on its nuclear program, even though UN nuclear inspectors had repeatedly confirmed that Iran was abiding by his commitments. Biden has made efforts to revive the deal since he took office, to no avail.

Trump also imposed harsh economic sanctions targeting Iran's oil revenues and international banking transactions, and those sanctions remained under Biden's control. Those measures, as well as corruption and economic mismanagement by the leadership, have weakened Iran's economy, causing the currency to plummet and inflation to soar.

Analysts say the shadow cast by Mr Trump demonstrates how central foreign policy is to the election, with all six candidates (five conservatives and one reformist) acknowledging that any hope for economic relief is inseparable from Tehran's relations with the world.

“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 the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

“The extremists argue that their persistence will tame Trump, and the moderate and reformist candidates believe that Trump will respond to the extremists with even greater pressure on Iran, suggesting they are in a better position to change the dialogue with the United States,” he said .

In Iranian political circles, concern about a Trump return precedes the special presidential election, which will be held to replace President Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash in May. The Foreign Ministry created an informal working group in the spring to begin preparing Trump's return, two Iranian officials said.

Iran has negotiated indirectly several times this year and most recently with the United States through Oman and Qatar for a prisoner exchange and to defuse regional tensions, and has engaged in indirect negotiations for a return to nuclear deal with both the Trump and Biden administrations.

The officials, who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said that if Trump were elected, Iran would continue indirect negotiations but would not meet with him directly. They said they discussed whether waiting to deal with Trump would make more sense than reaching a deal with Biden now, only to see a Republican, whether Trump or some other Republican president in the future, tear the situation apart.

Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, the conservative speaker of the Iranian parliament, considered the favorite in the presidential race, expresses himself like this: “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, said restoring the nuclear deal and reducing sanctions were among his top priorities. He said that if the president did not make timely decisions “he would have to sell Iran to Trump or create tensions in the country.”

Trump has repeatedly said during his presidency that his policy of maximum pressure on Iran was aimed at forcing the country to make concessions on its nuclear program and that he was not seeking regime change. He defended his politics 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 in the interview. He said his main goal was to deny Iran nuclear weapons. “I had them at a point where you could have negotiated,” he added, in 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 all major state issues, including negotiations with the United States and nuclear policy. But the Iranian president sets the domestic agenda and has some influence on foreign policy.

There is concern among Iranian voters about Trump, said a member of the reformist candidate's campaign staff, Dr. Masoud Pezeshkian, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly. The staffer said by phone from Tehran that voters had contacted Pezeshkian's campaign through social media asking what the candidate's plans were to counter Trump.

Dr Pezeshkian has made former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the chief nuclear negotiator who helped seal the 2015 deal, the face of his foreign policy. But Dr Pezeshkian's advisers said his choice for foreign minister would be Abbas Araghchi, who was Zarif's deputy and a member of the team that negotiated the nuclear pact in 2015.

During a televised roundtable, Zarif told one of Dr. Pezeshkian's conservative rivals that Iran had been able to increase its oil sales to pre-sanctions levels of two million barrels a day because Biden had “relaxed screws,” adding, “Wait for Trump to come back and we'll see what you do.”

At a rally in Tehran on Monday, Saeed Jalili, an ultraconservative candidate also involved in nuclear talks, addressed Trump with a well-known quote from Qassim Suleimani, the high-ranking general whose assassination in 2020 was ordered by Trump . Briscola.

“Mr. Trump, gambler, we are the ones who can take you on,” Jalili said, rousing the crowd with wild cheers and applause.

Leily Nikounazar contributed to the reporting.

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