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Iran’s Options vis-à-vis a Second-Term Trump

By Hassan Ahmadian | A Perspective from Tehran

Iran’s active resistance under a second-term Trump administration would entail a three-fold struggle to defuse the impact of US maximum pressure on Iran and to also minimize the country’s vulnerabilities against Washington.

Iran has been one of President Trump’s main foreign policy issues. By withdrawing from the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA) and re-imposing sanctions lifted as part of it, his administration re-orchestrated the decades-long enmity between Iran and the U.S. The “maximum pressure” campaign, which targeted every relevant and sanctionable Iranian business and economic entity, aimed to force Iran to succumb to a “negotiating” table on American terms. So far, however, Washington has not achieved what it demanded from Tehran. Despite mounting political, economic and military pressure, Iran developed its own strategy of “active resistance”—a strategy of pushback that aims at maximizing the costs for the U.S and its regional supporters for their anti-Iran policies while simultaneously building up Iran’s leverage vis-à-vis the U.S. If Trump is re-elected in November, Iran will stick to its active resistance strategy, which, in Tehran’s eyes, has been more effective than the maximum pressure campaign pursued by Washington. 

Trump’s re-election would mean a continuation of his administration’s current Iran policy. While the maximum pressure has yet failed to achieve its stated objectives, there seems to be no alternative to replace this ill-fated policy anyways. By resorting to a maximalist approach – outlined in the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 12-point demands — Trump’s Iran team deprived the administration of other alternative options. Consequently, there is little to no room for change in the maximum pressure in Trump’s second term. 

On the other hand, Iran’s political culture and its independence-driven strategic calculus along with the skyrocketing mistrust towards Washington have formed a consensus within its strategic community against engaging Trump. In addition, the U.S assassination of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in January 2020 turned Trump into a “national-hero-killer” in the eyes of a majority of Iranians, substantially raising the political cost of engagement with his administration.

Under a second Trump tenure, it is rather hard to envisage any change in Tehran’s calculus. Even though sanctions are biting Iran’s economy, Tehran’s strategic choices have never been primarily driven by its economic calculus. The experience of the past four decades suggests that Iran will resist as long as there is pressure with a zero-sum mentality against the country. It goes without saying that Pompeo’s 12-points demands are humiliating enough for Tehran to refuse without giving it a second thought. The real question is how another four years of Trump’s presidency would affect Iran’s choices in the years to come. Mindful of wildcards that can alter the equation, one may put Iran’s probable choices in a rather general picture.

Internally, Trump’s Iran policy has already derailed the “Moderates” agenda, piling immense pressure on that political faction inside the country. Having their main foreign policy achievement, the Iran Nuclear Deal, in shackles, criticism against their foreign policy approach has soared. Trump’s re-election would further weaken their position within the Iranian political scene. As such, the first change one may predict is the election of a Principalist (Conservative) candidate in the May/June 2021 presidential election. The recent overwhelming victory of the Principalists cheer led by Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, one of Rouhani’s main rivals in both 2013 and 2017, is quite telling that Iran’s politics are moving to the Conservative orbit. 

A Principalist administration would naturally be more inward looking, focusing on internal capacity-building to both bolster the “resilience economy” and also build up leverage vis-à-vis external threats, namely the U.S. The COVID outbreak has and will exacerbate this tendency. Trump’s maximalist demands have left Iran out of options but to resist in ways that it ironically left his own administration out of alternatives. With a Principalist administration at the helm, Iran will work to undercut U.S leverage through the enhancement of its defensive capabilities and furthering its economic self-reliance. While Iran is expected to further invest in its ties with rising powers on the foreign policy domain, multilateral diplomacy and engagement with the West will go way down on the list of its priorities.  

Iran’s active resistance under a second-term Trump administration would entail a three-fold struggle to defuse the impact of US maximum pressure on Iran and to also minimize the country’s vulnerabilities against Washington.

First, Iran’s economic activity will focus on “resilience and capacity-building”, which requires a shift toward self-sufficiency from reintegration into the global economy. And even though Iran will work on expanding its economic ties with the rising “East,” Tehran’s protective measures will too be expanded. Those measures would primarily focus on supporting internal production and non-oil exports with a goal of ending Iran’s economic addiction to oil – a national priority according to Iran’s Supreme Leader.   

Second, Iran’s foreign policy will continue to “shift to the East”. While the West (US and the E3) failed Iran in the JCPOA, China and Russia continued their economic ties with Tehran, despite fear of the U.S secondary sanctions. Both countries signed new long-term deals with Iran, thereby reiterating their commitment to working with Tehran amid the uncertainties surrounding the U.S presidential elections. It is important to note that the 25-year Iran-China deal is born out of the ashes of Iran’s failed reach-out to the West in the form of the JCPOA. Under a second Trump international arena, Iran, China and Russia are expected to enhance their cooperations and further expand their bilateral and multilateral ties. 

Third, Iran will focus more of its energy and potential on expanding and developing its deterrent capabilities both internally and regionally. Regionally, as the U.S and its client states have embarked on an anti-Iran campaign, Iran’s focus on elevating its means of deterrence continues both internally as well as regionally. For Tehran, it is strategically vital to balance against threats posed by the Israeli military as well as the Saudi military arsenal accumulated primarily by purchases from the U.S and EU countries. With the continuation of Trump’s financially-driven Middle East approach, the Iranian policy and rhetoric will remain to be centred around the strategy of  active resistance.

Another four years of Trump entails obvious cons for Iran but it has its pros as well. Besides the cons which are primarily economic as a result of sanctions and maximum pressure, there are also great opportunities for the Islamic Republic to consider. Trump’s internationally isolated policy, the weakening of the Western used-to-be consensus on Iran, its gradual moving towards self-reliance and self-sufficiency—which it will not do with full pockets—would strengthen Iran’s bonds with the rising powers and ultimately bolster the Islamic Republic internally. With those factors at play, Trump will need more leverage to force Iran into his so-called “better deal.” The question is whether there is more that he can do in his second term. The maximum pressure suggests that he has already played his main cards—at least that’s the perspective of many in Tehran.

The experience of the past four decades suggests that Iran will resist as long as there is pressure with a zero-sum mentality against the country.

Dr. Hassan Ahmadian is an Assistant Professor of Middle East and North Africa studies at the University of Tehran and an Associate of the Project on Shi’ism and Global Affairs at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. He is also a Middle East security and politics fellow at the Center for Strategic Research, Tehran. Follow on Twitter: @hasanahmadian.

Note: The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy or its executive team.