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Notes From Tehran: Trump, the Iranian Elections and the End of Sanctions

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Tehran.

The remaining 5 Republican candidates, winnowed in from the original dozen, push to ingratiate themselves among South Carolina’s Republican voters, who like a majority of their countrymen, are angry at Washington ‘pay-to-play’ politicians. The day before that state’s  February 27 primary, Iranian voters will have gone to the polls for their own crucial elections.

Iranians will vote in twin elections for the Iranian parliament and to elect a more powerful separate body known as the Assembly of Experts.  And yes, The Donald is now a factor in both of those Iranian elections.  Before Trump involved himself, the Iranian elections had already proven divisive. Many relatively moderate candidates were rejected by hard-liners during the vetting phase. Several of these blocked candidates support President Hassan Rouhani, a key architect of the Iran nuclear deal that they support.

For his part, Rouhani has been traveling abroad to begin Iran’s process of returning to international global trade. His recent travels are viewed among many in Iran as part of this month’s elections to shore up his support, given that the election is partly a referendum on his record and the nuclear agreement.

Hardliners in Iran and the US have joined the election campaign on the nuclear issue. Trump has referred to all supporters of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreements on Iran’s nuclear program as “stupid.”  During recent campaign interviews his approach, which is a mélange of nativism, conservatism, and populism is being closely monitored in Tehran while at home no other current candidate is matching its breadth. The Donald insists that the Obama administration completely botched the negotiation with Iran, whereas being the master dealmaker, he would have negotiated the agreement with Iran and obtained a much better outcome for America.

Trump assures voters that he would have spared America from having to pay to Iran what he wrongly claims are $150 billion.  He would have easily done this by telling the Iranians:

“Look guys, we Americans owe $19 trillion in debt.  We’re a country that has no money.  We can’t give you the $150 billion dollars.”  The Iranians, claims Trump, would have said, “But we want it. It’s ours!”  And Trump says he would have responded, “We can’t give it!  We don’t have it!  We don’t have it!” Trump assures audiences that he would have stood his ground and absolutely refused to pay the $150 billion.  At that point, the meeting would have broken-up with no agreement.  But then, two days later, the Iranians would have folded by calling Trump and saying, “Let’s make a deal.” Iran would then have agreed that America would not be required to pay the $150 billion.

What has many Iranians scratching their heads and asking American visitors: “Who is this is guy?” is partially the fact that Trump seems not even to know that frozen Iranian funds were never part of the US budget and no one has ever seriously claimed that they don’t belong to Iran. The US is obliged under the JCPOA to simply return Iran’s own money that it had seized and was holding in frozen accounts pending the resolution of the sanctions against Iran.

During an interview last week with CNN, Trump, ignorant about the facts of the deal, obviously had no clue that this money always belonged to Iran.   Yet this troubling fact does not prevent Trump from lambasting the nuclear deal and pledging to tear it up just as soon as he becomes president. He appears to have no idea what he is talking about in substance and appears to read from AIPAC ‘fact sheets’ which repeat Israel’s PM Netanyahu’s hysterical claims that Iran will be awash with up to $250 billion cash to fund more terrorism.

Of course, neither Trump nor any US President is going to scrap the JCPOA and if one tried, America’s global allies and likely the American public would strongly oppose its attempt. Nor will the Iranians scrape it.

Iranians, unlike candidate Trump, are realistic about what sanctions relief will really mean to Iran, recognizing that $20 billion of their returning money is committed to projects with China where sanction relief funds cannot be spent, and that there are tens of billions of dollars locked up in nonperforming loans to Iran’s energy and banking sectors. Iran has the world’s fourth-largest proved reserves of crude oil, and hopes to quickly increase production, which could lead to tens of billions worth of new oil trade despite a slumping market. But that won’t happen anytime soon.

In the run-up to their elections, many Iranians are increasingly critical of the terms of the deal and Rohani is losing some support for not delivering on promises of JCPOA benefits. This month’s elections will likely be viewed through this prism.

Recent polls of public opinion in Iran show that there has been an approximately ten percent drop in public support for the agreement. A recent poll taken by the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies last month shows that still nearly 72 percent of Iranians support last July’s agreement. Last August the figure was 75%.  Answering a question on whether the deal was a victory for Iran or a defeat, last August 36.6 percent of Iranians said it was a victory, but as of this month the figure has dropped to 27.4 percent. The current trend in Iranian public opinion has shifted with a rising number, currently 54%, up from 43% six months ago, claiming that the deal is beneficial for both Iran and the international community that agreed to it.

So-called moderate supporters of Iran’s President Rohani may have a major impact on this month’s elections and bring changes to Iran. The Iranian public is sophisticated about what JCPOA is likely to mean for them. Recent polls show that there has been an approximately ten percent drop in public support for the agreement.

Trump’s claims that the Obama administration has given Iran a major financial windfall favoring Islamic extremism are not supported by any serious analysis.  The Obama administration and its partners on the nuclear deal point out that Iran will receive over the next few years not $150 billion, but more like $56 billion, $32 billion of which it has already received, leaving $20 billion to repair its oil industry, much needed and popularly demanded infrastructure repairs plus measures to try to quell inflation.

The World Bank also estimates that about $100 billion of Iranian assets were frozen abroad, around half of which Tehran could access to as a result of sanctions relief. A contest for available funds in already well underway in Iran between public expectations for use of the money and hardliners favoring the funds going to various military demands including from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its hardliner allies.

Iranians will be indirectly voting this month on this key issue and students interviewed appear realistic that in the short term their lives will not be much improved as a result of JCPOA, but they overwhelmingly favor a return to ‘normal’ relations with the global community while acknowledging that Iran and the West have conflicting opinions on such issues as human rights, religious governments, aspects of Islam, terrorism and Israel among others and  that these differences will likely remain for the foreseeable future.

Some Iranians, especially young people, are also vocal about the fact that while Iran’s 1979 Revolution shook its criminal justice system to the core, the country’s legal framework remains largely inadequate, inefficient and inconsistent with fair trial standards, as claimed recently by Amnesty International.

Changes are coming to Iran and America and this month’s elections will likely point in which direction. This year’s elections in America and Iran may well also have a major effect on which direction both countries move, as well as their impact on the Middle East-West Asia region.

Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com).

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