Iran and the US almost went to war back in January. Since then, the Trump administration has doubled down on its “maximum pressure” campaign by increasing sanctions. Now, some Iranians are keeping their eyes on the US election, hoping it will ease tensions.
So much has happened since January that it is easy to forget that the US almost went to war with Iran.
Tensions heightened when the US killed Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani, and in response, Iran fired rockets at US forces stationed in Iraq. Nine months later, tensions are still high.
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And as Election Day nears in the US, Iranians inside Iran are watching closely to see if they can make sense of what the next four years will bring. For them, whoever ends up in the White House could have an impact on security, sanctions and the economy in Iran.
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“Honestly, this election has more impact on my life than any election here in Iran."
“Honestly, this election has more impact on my life than any election here in Iran,” said Amir, who runs an animation studio in Tehran.
He didn’t want The World to use his last name because he fears retribution from authorities. These days, Amir said, he is glued to social media and satellite TV channels to keep up with news about the presidential election in the US.
Recent months have been exceptionally hard for many inside Iran. The country’s currency has fallen “more than 50%,” Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told the audience at a recent video conference set up by the Council on Foreign Relations.
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According to the World Bank, Iran’s unemployment rate remains high, at 10.6% as of October to December 2019, though it showed improvement compared to the same period the previous year when the unemployment rate hit nearly 12%. The country is also experiencing economic challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic.
This week, state media reported that the country has hit its highest number of daily deaths from the coronavirus, with 239 new fatalities reported on Wednesday. The combination of sanctions, economic mismanagement and a pandemic has left many Iranians in despair.
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Amir, the animation designer in Tehran, told The World that he likes to work with foreign clients but that “the moment a client finds out you’re Iranian, he doesn’t want to risk doing business with you.”
That’s because the US has imposed sanctions on Iran’s banking system and foreign companies and banks could risk heavy fines if they violate American sanctions.
“There has never been this kind of pressure. And we will keep it going and we will increase it, as you’ll see in the coming days and weeks,” Elliott Abrams, US special envoy for Venezuela and Iran, told CNN this week.
On Thursday, the Trump administration announced new rounds of sanctions targeting 18 major Iranian banks not previously subject to US restrictions.
“Our sanctions programs will continue until Iran stops its support of terrorist activities and ends its nuclear programs,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. “Today’s actions will continue to allow for humanitarian transactions to support the Iranian people.”
In interviews with The World, several Iranians said they are paying close attention to the US elections because it may have a direct impact on US foreign policies on Iran.
“Whether we like it or not, we have to follow US politics,” said 21-year-old Nasser Moharram, a graphic designer in Tehran. “I think even Americans don’t pay as much attention to their election as much as we do,” he added, jokingly.
In fact, one poll showed that 96% of Iranians are following the US presidential contest to some degree. Iranian state media also covered the recent debate between the two candidates.
Moharram said he is in a holding pattern, for now, putting off any big financial decisions until after the November vote. The exchange rates for the US dollar have been so volatile, he said.
Another woman from Tehran, who didn’t want her name used, said she is glad that the Iranian government is “more isolated than ever.” Even though, she added, the impact of the sanctions is on Iranian people. She said she hopes the next US president puts pressure on the Iranian government regarding its human rights violations such as crackdowns on protesters.
In 2015, Iran and several other countries such as China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK and the US, (also known as the P5+1) negotiated an agreement called the JCPOA or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The Obama administration presented the deal as a major step forward to curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, ending about four decades of animosity between the Islamic Republic and the US. That was not how President Trump, Israel and some Gulf countries viewed the deal.
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“It is one the dumbest deals and one of the weakest contracts I have ever seen of any kind,” Trump said about the deal.
So, in 2018, the US walked away from the deal and instead started its “maximum pressure” campaign, which ramped up sanctions.
“President Trump’s strategy to confront Iran is easy to understand: Impose maximum pressure to gain maximum leverage ahead of negotiations to dismantle its nuclear program and address its malign activities — all while avoiding a military entanglement or pursuing a policy of regime change."
“President Trump’s strategy to confront Iran is easy to understand: Impose maximum pressure to gain maximum leverage ahead of negotiations to dismantle its nuclear program and address its malign activities — all while avoiding a military entanglement or pursuing a policy of regime change,” Richard Goldberg, who served on President Trump’s National Security Council, wrote in The New York Times.
But the Iranian government hasn't come to the negotiating table and is waiting to see who wins the election. Last month, Trump predicted that Iran will renegotiate a new nuclear deal with the US.
“Within maybe literally a very short time you’ll have Iran coming back and saying let’s get all this worked out,” he said.
But Abas Aslani, a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran, believes Trump is “making such remarks for domestic use in the elections." According to Aslani, Iran has been looking to countries like Russia and China for trade partners that can help its economy, adding that any possible negotiations with the next US administration will be complicated and likely won’t happen quickly.
“Iran sees this as a room [where] everybody was present and the Americans left the room and if they want to talk, they have to [get] back to the room."
“Iran sees this as a room [where] everybody was present and the Americans left the room and if they want to talk, they have to [get] back to the room,” he said.
Foreign Minister Zarif also sounded skeptical in his conversation at the Council on Foreign Relations. He blamed the US for quitting the deal that was signed by seven countries and the European Union.
“None of those parties got all they wanted,” he said. “Now they cannot come back and say, ‘We want to get everything that I wanted because I didn’t get it the first time around.’”
Aslani, who reported on the nuclear negotiations at the time for an Iranian news website, said he expected a bumpy road.
“Making the deal was not the ending point but that was the beginning,” he said.
Related: Analysis: No clear path forward for Iran-US relations
Meanwhile, Joe Biden who was vice president when the talks took place, has said that if he wins the election, he will “offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy.”
For now, many Iranians are holding their breaths as Americans go to the polls next month.
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