How will the outcome of the November 3 presidential election affect Iran’s relations with the United States? If incumbent President Donald Trump gets re-elected, will Tehran be forced to return to the negotiating table and accept whatever deal he offers, as he often claims? Or does Joe Biden, who recently called for the easing of economic sanctions on Iran, have a better chance of securing a new deal with the country?
Most Western analysts expect Iran to start a new round of negotiations with the US in the new year regardless of who wins the election. This prediction has some merit, as Iran’s economy has been in dire straits since Trump’s controversial 2018 decision to withdraw the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal) and impose a new round of sanctions on the country.
This severely damaged the Iranian economy, which was already suffering from years of mismanagement, poor governance and corruption. The COVID-19 pandemic also added to Iran’s economic woes, and led to stagflation – a combination of rising inflation and slowing growth. The Islamic Parliament Research Center of Iran predicted that if the state fails to change the direction of the economy swiftly, 57 million Iranian citizens, or some 70 percent of the population, will soon be pushed below the poverty line.
While it would indeed be beneficial for Iran to break the impasse in its relations with the US, analysts who predict a post-election return to negotiations seem to be ignoring one crucial factor in the equation: Iran’s internal dynamics and the transformation its regime went through since the signing of the JCPOA in 2015.
Iranians themselves will elect a new president in less than eight months, and many expect the new Iranian leader to be someone closely affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the regime’s ideological army. In the past, even mentioning an IRGC member’s possible participation in elections was taboo, but today, many Iranian political analysts are publicly discussing the possibility of a guard member becoming the country’s next president.
While it is hard to predict whether the IRGC will be successful in its bid to take over the executive branch in 2021, the fact that this is a very real – and openly discussed – possibility in itself signals the gradual securitisation and “IRGCisation” of the country’s political arena. This is why, if we want to understand what US-Iran relations will look like after the US presidential election, beyond analysing Trump and Biden’s foreign policy proposals, we should also explore the IRGC’s views on negotiating with the US and the two American presidential contenders.
As the guardian of Iran’s regime and its core security force, the IRGC is highly suspicious of Washington’s intentions. The IRGC leadership believes that the US is waging a “hybrid war” against Iran that aims to instigate internal unrest and topple its regime through economic attacks and propaganda campaigns that are designed to turn the Iranian population against their leaders. According to Brigadier General Yadollah Javani, the head of the political bureau of the IRGC, the strategic goals of the US are to prevent Iran’s progress, instil despair and hopelessness in the population, and sway the younger generation from the path of the Islamic revolution.
Due to its perception of the US as a dishonest and aggressive enemy that is determined to destroy the Iranian regime at any cost, as well as its anti-American and anti-imperialist ideological foundations, the IRGC is staunchly against engaging in any negotiations with Washington, regardless of who is occupying the White House. For the IRGC, Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA proved beyond any doubt that the US is not a trustworthy adversary. As Javani has openly stated, the entire JCPOA saga convinced the guard that they “should not think of any negotiations with the United States any longer”.
Moreover, the leaders of the IRGC do not see much difference between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to their policies on Iran. They believe, as Javani recently warned, a Democratic victory in November should not be seen as an opportunity to return to negotiations, as both political parties are trying to achieve the same result, albeit through different means. Perhaps even more crucially, as an ideological military force tasked with protecting the regime, the IRGC’s raison d’être is to oppose American imperialism. Ideological indoctrination makes up more than half of the required training to become a member of the guard. And a quick look at the IRGC’s Ideological-Political Training textbook demonstrates how its members view the US: an evil regime hellbent on world domination. In this world view, where Iran is on the side of everything good (jebeh-e Hagh) and the US is the representation of all that is evil (jebeh Boatel), there is no space for negotiations, and the conflict between the two nations will continue until one of them falls.
Participating in, or even appearing supportive of, negotiations with the Americans would undermine the IRGC’s ideological foundations and may be perceived as a betrayal of the revolution by its supporters at home and abroad. Anti-Americanism is the central component of the IRGC’s ideology and the source of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s political appeal. It cannot be eroded.
In the eyes of the IRGC, normalising relations with the US is not an overall recipe for resolving Iran’s myriad of economic troubles either. The guard believes, as they state in their propaganda materials targeting the domestic market, that the main culprit behind Iran’s economic devastation is not Washington’s economic sanctions, but the Iranian liberal elites and technocrats who currently dominate the country’s decision-making bodies and engender widespread corruption and inequality. For the IRGC, negotiations with the US are useless in solving Iran’s multifaceted problems, and, said problems can only be remedied through the establishment of a young “Hezbollahi” (more conservative and religious) government. The “rejuvenation of the regime” was also a central principle Khamenei’s February 2019 manifesto outlining his plans for the country’s future, entitled “The Second Phase of the Revolution”.
Moreover, the IRGC did not forget or forgive the January 3 assassination of IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani by the US. The demise of Soleimani, who was a charismatic and influential leader, has tactically weakened the IRGC Quds Force and its missions in the region. Mirroring Khamenei, who declared “the regime will never forget the assassination of Soleimani”, IRGC chief Major General Hossein Salami recently emphasised that the guard will do everything in its power to avenge the death of the commander.
In short, the IRGC has little reason or motivation to push for a new round of negotiations with the US. The IRGC is not waiting for a new, more amenable president to move into the White House and restart diplomatic efforts to resolve the problems between Iran and the US. Instead, it is working tirelessly to end the domination of the US in the Middle East and beyond. General Javani made this clear in a recent interview where he said “America is like a cancerous growth that needs to be shrunk and eradicated”, later clarifying that their aim is not to “disappear America from the face of the earth” but rather destroy its capitalist system, which has harmed many other nations as well as Iran.
The IRGC is rapidly expanding its political influence in Iran, and next year’s election may result in the military force also gaining control of the presidency. In terms of foreign policy, this would mean the Quds Force becoming even more active in the region, continuing its resistance to the US and its allies. And in terms of bilateral relations with the US, it means the possibility of a post-election rapprochement, or even a new line of dialogue, is almost non-existent – regardless of who ends up occupying the White House in the new year.