Why Iran’s next hardline president should thank Donald Trump


Iranian elections have never been free nor fair, but they have seldom been as farcical as they will be this coming Friday. Most expect that the hardline candidate Ebrahim Raisi will “win,” and if he does, he will owe a debt of gratitude to Donald Trump.

Trump’s maximum pressure strategy were a carnage of the Iranian middle class — the core constituency favoring greater political openness and improved relations with the West. The number of poor Iranians went from 22 to 32 million in 2018-19. The middle class shrunk from 45 to 30%.

Of course, hardliners would likely have tried cheating even if Trump hadn’t pulled out of the Iran Deal. But Trump’s sanctions weakened and discredited moderate forces in Iran and shifted the balance in favor of hardliners to the point of emboldening them to do what they earlier only could have dreamed of.

Rouzbeh Parsi and I wrote about this in Responsible Statecraft today.

Your thoughts are welcome.

Trita Parsi


Responsible Statecraft
Rouzbeh Parsi and Trita Parsi
June 15, 2021

Donald Trump may no longer be president but he looms large over Iran’s presidential elections. He has proved Iran’s hardliners right for once: the United States cannot be trusted. And the consequences of his policies are now shaping Iran’s increasingly farcical elections.

Undermining America’s credibility by pulling out of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement predictably strengthened the Iranian hardliners’ hand while giving a near death-blow to those within the Iranian power elite that favor an opening to the United States. Combined with systemic corruption and the COVID-19 pandemic, the outgoing Rouhani government and its supporters have been severely undermined by Trump’s betrayal of the nuclear agreement to the point that some hardliners, who long have entertained the idea of doing away with elections altogether, have been emboldened to manipulate the electoral process in ways that even shocked their fellow conservatives.

The Guardian Council — the undemocratic body tasked with vetting candidates — stunned the country by rejecting longtime regime insiders such as Ali Larijani, the former Speaker of the Parliament and an adviser to the country’s Supreme Leader, while only approving two non-conservatives: Mohsen Mehralizadeh, an uncharismatic former Vice President with limited name recognition, and technocrat Abdolnaser Hemmati, the former head of Iran’s Central Bank.

Centrists and reformists weren’t the only ones expressing shock and dismay. Larijani’s brother, Sadegh Larijani, took to Twitter to accuse unnamed security services of interfering with the work of the Guardian Council, adding that he’s “never found [the Council’s] decisions so indefensible.” Sadegh Larijani’s critique was stinging precisely because he himself sits on the Guardian Council.

Other conservatives agreed. The editor of the hardline Tasnim news agency, Kian Abdollahi, tweeted that even many hardliners are unsatisfied with the candidate list. Three Basij centers at important Iranian universities warned that the narrowness of the approved candidates list would cause the next president to lack popular legitimacy.

The unprecedented manipulation all seems geared towards handing the presidency to hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi in order to all but secure him as the next Supreme Leader of Iran once Ayatollah Ali Khamenei passes. The high stakes may explain why hardliners have been willing to go further than in previous elections in terms of manipulating the elections.

But it doesn’t explain their perception — and possibly the reality — that they can get away with this transparent fraud.

That’s where Trump comes in. His maximum pressure has had a devastating effect on the economy, but not the priorities and policies of the Iranian state. The pressure campaign significantly reduced Iran’s primary source of hard currencies, oil, and shrunk the economy by 12 percent in 2020. The rial has dropped precipitously in value, both due to the sanctions but also as an effect of the lack of confidence and hope within the business community that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Massive sanctions of this kind are in effect a form of warfare against society that hit the Iranian middle class — the core constituency favoring greater political openness and improved relations with the West — the hardest. Using Trump’s own vocabulary, it’s been nothing less than a carnage. The number of poor Iranians increased 22 million to 32 million in the first two years of maximum pressure while the middle class shrunk from 45 percent to 30 percent of the population.

According to Hadi Kahalzadeh: “Trump’s maximum pressure campaign altered the social class structure of the country by moving a significant portion of the middle class to the poverty level. The result has been to stigmatize the idea of engagement with the West as a solution to Iran’s economic woes.” Indeed, while 13 out of 14 top private road construction companies declared bankruptcy during the first two years of maximum pressure, the Revolutionary Guard-affiliated construction company Khatam‑al Anbiya doubled its projects during this same period.

While clearly having benefited from Trump’s sanctions, the hardliners and the Revolutionary Guards publicly blame all of Iran’s economic ills on the Rouhani government. This has been quite visible during the election debates these past two weeks as the hardline candidates — much like the Iranian opposition in exile — pin the blame for Iran’s economic woes almost exclusively on Rouhani while giving Trump a pass.

Of course, there is little to suggest that Iran’s hardliners would not have tried to manipulate the elections even if Trump never had pulled out of the nuclear deal. Indeed, the high stakes — setting the stage for a Khamenei-Raisi succession — and past pattern of fraud makes attempts at cheating very likely, if not a certainty.

But trying and succeeding are two different things. The former is intrinsic to the hardliners. The latter is dependent on a whole set of external factors, of which U.S. policy towards Iran is a critical one. Trump’s contribution through maximum pressure has been to tilt the political balance heavily in favor of the hardliners by weakening and discrediting the centrist and reformists to the point that they may now succeed in doing what they earlier only could have dreamt of.

Still, Iranian elections are full of surprises. Hardline attempts at manipulating the elections have failed in the past. The rejection of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani in 2013 initially caused an uproar and similar election apathy among the population only for voters to rapidly line up behind Hassan Rouhani only a few days before election day. Rouhani went from single-digits in the polls a week before the elections to win a majority of the votes with a turnout of 74 percent.

Several factors contributed to Rouhani’s remarkable turn-around. But two essential ones were a sense among the population that he was the most viable anti-establishment candidate and that a vote for him would be a strong signal of disapproval to the establishment headed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Secondly, credible voices such as Rafsanjani and former President Mohammad Khatami pleaded with the population not to boycott the elections.

Today, there are embryonic signs that former Central Bank head Abdolnaser Hemmati may emerge as the uniter of the anti-establishment vote. But a key difference from 2013 is that the calls for boycotting the elections are much louder and even coming from figures within the regime, while few influential voices have embarked on compelling anti-boycott campaigns.

Despite their efforts, the hardliners may still fail and the presidency may not be captured by them. But if they succeed with this open fraud, the United States and the European Union should carefully study their own role in Iran’s big leap towards greater authoritarianism — and resist doubling down on the very policy that helped bring about this hardline take-over in the first place.

Rouzbeh Parsi is head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. Trita Parsi is the Executive Vice President of the Quincy Institute. 


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  1. I generally read your article and if I want to make comment I do. With this article you made me stop at the very beginning of the article. Calling Iranian election ” Iranian elections have never been free nor fair, but they have seldom been as farcical they will be this coming Friday ” gives me very good idea as to your character of ” running with hare and hound “. Yes to you it will be as you describe because Iranian elections do not follow the rules which allows any person of any back ground to stand in the election and get to the most important job of the nation as long as he has the money are is supported by those who have the money. That is why Leave alone the Most degraded nation of USA the whole of West is ruled by men of no moral standing and outright criminals. To any thinking person a democracy without roots in higher principle is nothing but Tyranny. Yes Iranian elections are constructed in that sense other wise the are freer and fairer than Propaganda controlled farcical election of Western Democracies. Just imagine the Major wars and since then the many small wars are the result of free for all democratically elected Criminals.

  2. @NewtRallyt :
    Oh, I understand the point on antisemite but I just didn’t want to get dragged into that path for precaution purposes. One doesn’t know what hidden goals are behind a conversation or a comment.
    However, it’s really sans rancune et de tout coeur…👍👍👍

  3. @NewtRallyt: “…Tehran Tom (Cotton) calls the outlet antisemite ? “.
    I am not sure what waves you are on my dear friend but by your given answer, you have just demonstrated your narrow perspective on what I had written. Out of all the problems I listed, this is the only thing that you can come up with. Try to put yourself in the shoes of those on the receiving end first before commenting on such issues please.
    I have personally met enough Iranians like Trita & Co and most of them are products of the Shah, not seeing further than the tip of their nose. I am not saying that the current government makes no mistake but show me which government is perfect in this messy world. The Iranian government is just few decades old and what was developed in this short time is 100 times more than what the Shah has ever done for his country, despite all the embargoes on them for over 30 years. Therefore articles written by puppets like these don’t move me but rather expose the narrow mindedness and twisted perceptions on the problem of those who produce them. So, please keep anti semitism out of this discussion and comment on what I have written, unless you have a dog in the race then I get the message, thank you.

    • Lol, “Iranians like Trita & Co” … mdr. You have no idea what “most product of the Shah” think of Parsi. If that was the case that he’s a taghouti then the expats wouldn’t call him a mullah apologist. You’re also not grasping that if it’s called antisemite it means that it runs counter to the Israeli line of thinking … which is good.

      Sans rancune.

  4. Don’t discount how Iran figures into the US Christian Zionist crazy end-times scenario. They are the heart and soul of the ReTrumplican Party. As Trump’s “spiritual” advisor, Pastor John Hagee, put it, “We stand reminding the dictators of the world that the United States of America and Israel are forever united. Let every Islamic terrorist hear this message: Israel lives! … Let it echo down the marble halls of the presidential palace in Iran: Israel lives!” Under Trump, these nutjobs almost got the apocalyptic war with Iran and Russia they pray for.

  5. I am no Iranian but I find the whole article so biased and the title so preposterous. One doesn’t have to look into the details to realise where the whole venom is coming from. The writer being part of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and executive Vice President of the Quincy Institute, says it all. While under the Shah, poverty in Iran was worse than most Arab countries, let along women in higher education. Tortures and imprisonments were rampant and Iran’s infrastructure was deplorable but because the Shah was a Western puppet, he was portrayed as the fifth military power in the world, modern and democratic. However, the moment the Islamic government took over and freed itself from the claws of America and Israel, it became the villain, extremist, hardliner, Islamic totalitarian regime, typical Western rethorics for countries who don’t submit to their agenda. The people of the world had enough of this game and it’s time for Westerners to wake up to these facts & take responsibility for the crimes committed by their corrupt, usurpers and mafia like regimes, followed by oppression and theft of natural resources while controlling nearly every 3rd world government remotely under threatening measures to comply with Uncle Tom and other Western agendas. As for such writers, there are plenty such parrots who can’t get a proper job, they sell themselves to serve the benefits of their masters for few $$$$$.

    • There is more truth coming out of Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft than the entire media in the hands of right wingers. The notion of “liberal media” is a right wing farce to deflect. Any surprise that Tehran Tom (Cotton) calls the outlet antisemite ?

      Don’t shoot the messenger. Trita’s point of view is shared by a good percentage of Iranians and we’re not including the royalist sellouts who have never stopped attacking him but always advocating for an all out war. He makes mistakes just like any human being, and we’re not including the right wingers who lack humanity.

    • Generally they are political whores. Not whoring because of poverty but because of Greed they Fill all the Parliaments of Europe under the Title of ” Friends of Israel “. Be they just MPs or become ministers. Just as they are in almost all USA states’ and Federal Responsible positions.

  6. “Of course, hardliners would likely have tried cheating even if Trump hadn’t pulled out of the Iran Deal.” This is a baseless assertion. First, they’re not hardliners, but revolutionaries. Second, they do not cheat, or else they wouldn’t have lost by a few percentage points in previous elections. Third, the state of Iran’s economy would have been the same with democrat, as the US policies are the same.

    • You forget that it was Trump that killed the JCPOA and imposed drastic new sanctions on Iran in 2018. It was Trump that murdered General Soleimani. This was to appease Netanyahu and his Christian Zionist base. Now Biden comes along and has to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Sorry, can’t be done.

    • Trump sanctions was means to forced Iran to shift to next phase of negotiations. Negotiation over missiles and regional influence, which are controlled by the IRGC and the supreme leader, and not the government. Hence new tactic of maximum pressure was needed. Trump took the same strategy of crippling sanctions which Obama used successfully and applied to at greater magnitude. Democrats would have done the same instead of trump.

    • The actual sanctions were never negotiated under Obama, such as the U-turn sanctions, which means Iran cannot trade wherever US dollar is involved in the transactions. Hence, all talks of sanctions being removed were just propaganda, with both the Iranian westernized government and US taking part. The ultimate goal was to constantly shift the goal post to have Iran back down more, till regime change.

    • Let’s say his maximum pressure was a tactic needed to shift to the next phase of the negotiations, then what was the Soleimani murder ? to sweeten the pot ?

      You don’t cancel a deal to make it better, even the non westernized Iranian government knows this.

      The truth and this applies to any country’s politics is that the vise has always been in the hands of the republicans who are also in charge of the military to squeeze the heck out of any possibility of detente by any “democrats” anywhere in office.

      History doesn’t lie.
      Before the transition of Khatami to Ahmadinejad the vise was squeezing the nuts of Clinton and Khatami during the Dialogue Among Civilizations.
      In Israel the vise was used on Barak for rapprochement with Arafat and the Ultra/Orthodox till Sharon came in.
      For eight years the Party of No squeezed Obama’s who finally signed Humpty Dumpty and fingered Israel at the last minute with res 2334.

      Here was the problem of Humpty Dumpty: the Israeli bankers and the Iranian bankers were not remotely ready for the transition.

    • Soleimani’s murder was a tactic on continuations of maximum pressure. In their calculations, with Soleimani out of the way, Iran would become weaker in the region and hence more under pressure, giving the westernized forced more ammunition to push for continuation of the negotiations for missiles, regional power, etc…

      Since west needed to push Iran to essentially surrender to give up its regional influence/missiles, for that it needed shock and awe tactic. Exit the deal, break Iran through through crippling sactions, civil disobediences, regional defeats (Soleimani’s death), then open the door for Iran to come back begging for negotiations, which Trump states was his strategy. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/01/15/trump-is-still-pushing-new-nuclear-deal-with-iran-how-likely-is-that/

      However, Trumps strategy failed, Iran didn’t fall apart and didn’t become weak enough for them to return to negotiations. And now, it’s over, revolutionaries will come to power and the negotiation story will come to an end.

    • Trump’s economic terrorism was never meant to get a better deal. He knew it and Israel knew it.
      Trump prepared to go to war but was piped down by democrats. He vetoed the Iran War Powers resolution.
      You think Adelson wanted a new deal ?

      Don’t forget, if Reagan was president in 79 there wouldn’t have been a revolution. A long civil war would have destroyed the country.
      But instead of accepting defeat the right winger fraud gave the region a long eight year war feeding both sides until stupid Saddam wised up.

      On your forwarded link, the writer of the article has written about the effectiveness of economic terrorism in one of his books. Unconvincingly put forth with unproven conclusions, a mere opinion. You might think of that as a strategy to bring people to the negotiating table but as you should know Iran doesn’t bend to pressure, that was the entire basis of getting into the negotiations pre 2015.

      The good thing is that the system of checks and balances is still working and it stopped an unhinged right wing crazy from blowing up Tehran as Adelson always wished.

      Lastly on your negotiation story coming to an end, there are other signatories to the deal who happen to be Iran’s economic partners, always supporting a deal worth supporting, and when and if it’s revived they will act as Iran’s “system of checks and balances.”

  7. Raisi was a second best during the elections of 2017 two months after Trump was elected by Israel. Israelis thought they have a sure war with Iran but didn’t know that the IRGC’s missiles and drones are real. They were sold the cardboard version by the usual Israeli firsters.

    Watch the military expand ten fold under Raisi.

    Trita as much as I respect him thinks that the presence of US military around the world is for defensive purposes like in the rest of the world.

  8. So is Iranian elections as croaked as US ones. The US elections sets the world standard as croaked!

  9. I used to think VT intentionally published the worst photos of Trump, then I realized it’s not so; every photo of that Mango Mussolini shithead is just as bad.

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