As the United States prepares to elect the country’s 45th president, I talked to Sadegh Zibakalam, author, political analyst and professor of political science at the university of Tehran, about what the election means for Iran and the Middle East, and why Republicans and Iran's leaders traditionally enjoy a more natural relationship than that between Iranian politicians and the Democrats.
What impact will the US presidential election have on Iran and the Middle East?
At least in the short term, we will not witness serious changes and developments, either in US-Iranian relations or in American policies in the region.
Even if Mr. Trump wins?
It is very difficult to speculate about Mr. Trump. We know he is riding a populist wave, but when he becomes president and must adopt practical policies, will he stay [true to] these slogans? Or will the Pentagon, Congress, the Senate and other experts have some influence on him?
In general, I think that later on, the leaders of the Islamic will find out how good they had it with Obama, especially during the years when John Kerry was Secretary of State. They will wish we had taken better advantage of when Obama was in the White House and John Kerry was at the helm of US foreign policy. They will wish they had gone further to reduce tensions between Tehran and Washington.
The fact is, that out of all US administrations since the Iranian revolution, none has been more willing than Obama to improve relations with Tehran. Obama would have not minded if he was remembered in US history as the president who ended the animosity between Iran and the United States. But, in any case, the hardliners did not allow that to happen.
But Mrs. Clinton is also a Democrat and will probably continue with Obama's policies.
When it comes to Iran, Mrs. Clinton’s approach has three characteristics that do not favor Iran very much. She believes that US relations with Saudi Arabia and conservative Arab regimes should be closer, and we do not like this very much. She believes there should be closer relations with Israel and we do not like this either. And, as is usually the case with Democrats, she is more preoccupied with human rights and its violations than Republicans. From this point of view, Iran would not be very happy if Mrs. Clinton and the Democrats take over.
Then this is why the hardliners support Trump? Even Ayatollah Khamenei has implicitly supported Mr. Trump.
Part of it is because Mrs. Clinton gravitates towards Israel and Saudi Arabia. Mr. Trump might not have a smile for Iran, but he does not have too many smiles for Israel and Saudi Arabia either. Iran considers this a gift. Clinton bares her teeth when it comes to Iran. In fact [the hardliners] are saying that although Trump is not our friend, he is not a friend of Israel and the Arabs either. But Clinton is our enemies’ friend.
The second reason is that the Russians welcome a Trump victory and have done everything in their power to ensure his victory. Putin has shown that he would hate a Clinton victory and his pleasure at [the prospect of] a Trump victory. Iran is a Russian ally and we have practically tied our foreign policy to that of Russia. So if the Russians say Trump is good we, too, say Trump is good.
The third reason is that, in the past, the Iranian government was able to come to certain secret agreements with the Republicans. Under President Reagan, there was the Robert McFarland [Iran-Contra] affair, when Iran accepted arms in exchange for the freedom of American hostages [held by Hezbollah in Lebanon]. Things were on track until Lebanese revolutionaries — who were not happy with the US-Iranian bargain — revealed the affair and Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani [who was Speaker of Parliament at the time] had to pull the plug on it.
At the time of George W. Bush, when the Americans attacked the Taliban or Saddam’s Iraq, in both cases we showed a green light and came to unwritten and unannounced agreements with the Republicans. We gave them fly-over rights and they granted us other concessions. So the experience has taught the Islamic Republic that, with the Democrats, whatever we do must be public, like the nuclear negotiations. But with the Republicans, we understand each other better, and we can come to secret agreements with them over Lebanon, Syria, etc.
The combination of these three factors makes the hardliners want Trump to win.
If you could vote, which candidate would you vote for?
For the future of Iran in the long term, I would prefer somebody who takes human rights, democracy and freedom seriously, somebody who will help the process of democratization in Iran and in the region. Considering that in general Democrats take human rights and democracy seriously — at least verbally — I prefer Mrs. Clinton over Mr. Trump, who has practically shown no support for freedom, democracy and minorities and, on the contrary, bares his claws and teeth at them.
But you also said a Trump victory would benefit Iran to a greater extent.
Trump might be good for hardliners but he is in no way good for moderates and reformists. Trump does not value human rights, liberties and democracy in any way. Perhaps it would be enough for him to see that Iran cooperates in fighting against ISIS, Al Qaeda or the Taliban. But the Democrats at least verbally pay attention to human rights in Iran. They might not do anything concrete about it, but for me, even this counts.