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Iran’s Presidential Candidates Agree on One Thing: Trump Is Coming

Iran’s Presidential Candidates Agree on One Thing: Trump Is Coming

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Throughout Iran’s presidential campaign, in debates, rallies and speeches, a singular presence has hovered: Donald J. Trump.

To hear the six candidates tell it, the former president’s victory in the 2024 White House race is a foregone conclusion. The urgent question facing Iranian voters as they go to the polls on Friday, they say, is who is best suited to deal with him.

They hardly ever mention President Biden, and they never bring up the many polls suggesting that the American election will be extremely close. Instead, Mr. Trump’s name is invoked again and again.

“Wait and you will see what will happen when Trump comes,” one candidate, the cleric Mostafa Pourmohammadi, said during a recent televised debate. “We have to get ready for negotiations.” Another candidate, Alireza Zakani, Tehran’s mayor, accused his rivals at a debate of having “Trump-phobia,” insisting that only he could manage him.

In one of Mr. Pourmohammadi’s campaign posters, he and Mr. Trump are eye to eye, staring each other down. “The person who can stand in front of Trump is me,” it reads.

Iranians have ample reason to be wary of another Trump presidency. It was Mr. Trump who unilaterally pulled the United States out of Iran’s deal with world powers over its nuclear program, even though U.N. nuclear inspectors had repeatedly confirmed that Iran was complying with its commitments. Mr. Biden has made efforts to revive the deal since taking office, to no avail.

Mr. Trump also imposed tough economic sanctions targeting Iran’s oil revenues and international banking transactions, and those sanctions have remained under Mr. Biden. Those measures, as well as corruption and economic mismanagement by the leadership, have tanked Iran’s economy, sending the currency plunging and spiking inflation.

Analysts say the shadow thrown by Mr. Trump shows how central foreign policy is to the election, with all six candidates — five conservatives and a reformist — acknowledging that any hope for economic relief is inseparable from Tehran’s relations with the world.

“The potential return of the Trump administration has become a bogey in presidential debates,” said Vali Nasr, a former Obama administration official and a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

“Hard-liners argue their toughness will tame Trump, and moderate and reformist candidates believe that Trump will react to hard-liners with even more pressure on Iran, hinting that they are better positioned to change the conversation with the U.S.,” he said.

In Iran’s political circles, concern about a Trump comeback predates this special presidential election, which is being held to replace President Ebrahim Raisi, who died in a helicopter crash in May. The Foreign Ministry created an informal working group in the spring to begin preparing for Mr. Trump’s return, two Iranian officials said.

Iran negotiated indirectly several times this year and last with the United States through Oman and Qatar for a prisoner swap and to defuse regional tensions, and it engaged in indirect negotiations for a return to the nuclear deal with both the Trump and Biden administrations.

The officials, who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said that, should Mr. Trump be elected, Iran would continue indirect negotiations but would not meet with him directly. They said that they discussed whether waiting to deal with Mr. Trump would make more sense than reaching an agreement with Mr. Biden now, only to have a Republican, whether Mr. Trump or some other Republican president in the future, tear it up.

Mohammad Baqer Ghalibaf, the conservative speaker of the Iranian Parliament, who is considered the front-runner in the presidential race, put it this way: “When we are facing an enemy like Trump who does not behave with integrity, we have to be calculative in our behavior.” Mr. Ghalibaf, a former commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has said that restoring the nuclear deal and sanctions relief are among his top priorities. He said if the president does not make timely decisions he would “either have to sell Iran to Trump or create tensions in the country.”

Mr. Trump repeatedly said during his presidency that his policy of maximum pressure on Iran was aimed at cornering the country into making concessions on its nuclear program, and that he was not looking for regime change. He defended his policy last week in a virtual interview with the All In podcast.

“I would have made a fair deal with Iran; I was going to get along with Iran,” Mr. Trump said in the interview. He said his main goal was to deny Iran nuclear weapons. “I had them at a point where you could’ve negotiated,” he added, in a claim disputed by analysts. “A child could’ve made a deal with them.”

In Iran’s theocratic system, the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has the final say on all major state matters, including negotiations with the United States and nuclear policy. But the Iranian president does set the domestic agenda and has some influence on foreign policy.

There is concern among Iranian voters about Mr. Trump, said a campaign staff member for the reformist candidate, Dr. Masoud Pezeshkian, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly. The staff member said by telephone from Tehran that voters had contacted the Pezeshkian campaign through social media asking what the candidate’s plans were for countering Mr. Trump.

Dr. Pezeshkian has made the former foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the chief nuclear negotiator who helped seal the 2015 deal, the face of his foreign policy. But Dr. Pezeshkian’s advisers said that his choice for foreign minister would be Abbas Araghchi, who was Mr. Zarif’s deputy and a member of the team that negotiated the nuclear pact in 2015.

During a televised round-table discussion, Mr. Zarif told one of Dr. Pezeshkian’s conservative rivals that Iran had been able to raise its oil sales to pre-sanctions levels of two million barrels a day because Mr. Biden had “loosened the screws,” adding: “Wait for Trump to come back, and we’ll see what you will do.”

At a rally in Tehran on Monday, Saeed Jalili, an ultraconservative candidate who was also involved in the nuclear talks, addressed Mr. Trump with a well-known quote from Qassim Suleimani, the high-ranking general whose 2020 assassination was ordered by Mr. Trump.

“Mr. Trump, you gambler, we are the ones who can deal with you,” Mr. Jalili said, rousing the crowd to wild cheers and claps.

Leily Nikounazar contributed reporting.



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