International Policy Digest

Photo illustration by John Lyman
World News /13 Dec 2020
12.13.20

The Paradox of Iranian ‘Trump Supporters’

In the weeks ahead of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Iran’s political leaders and ordinary citizens were following the campaign news with great interest. This interest reached a peak on election day. Despite the eight hour time difference, many Iranians stayed up late into the evening, or woke up early the next morning to learn about the outcome. This interest should not come as a surprise to anyone because Iranians believe that U.S. policy towards Iran under a Biden administration will be different and he is likely to ease some sanctions.

Under the Trump administration’s policy of maximum pressure, the Iranian economy has suffered a significant setback. Oil revenues have sharply declined and the Iranian government has not been able to access its deposits (which are mostly the accumulated oil export revenues), in international banks because of the financial sanctions. As a result, the value of Iran’s currency depreciated sharply in 2020 and led to record-high inflation rates. Even the government-controlled media and most government officials openly admit that the standard of living of millions of Iranians has declined visibly as a result of President Trump’s maximum pressure campaign.

While this strong Iranian interest in the U.S. presidential election was expected, what has puzzled many observers is that despite the economic hardships that the maximum pressure campaign has caused in the past two years, many Iranians were openly expressing support for Donald Trump and rooting for him to win. This was evident in the comments that Iranians were posting on social media. Even a well-known professor of political science at Tehran University, Sadegh Zibakalam, acknowledged this phenomenon in a TV interview. After explaining this unusual behavior he urged the ruling Islamic regime to think about why some Iranians were praying for a Trump victory. In my personal contacts with a few friends and acquaintances inside Iran, I also sensed that some were hoping for a Trump victory.

Why were some Iranians rooting for Trump despite all the pain that he has inflicted on Iran? The answer lies in the multiple ways that his policies have impacted Iran and the complex political dynamics between the ruling elite and ordinary Iranians. Trump’s harsh policies towards Iran have had multiple effects on the domestic conditions of the country, which extend beyond the direct adverse effects of the economic sanctions. Looking at the opinions of Iranian “Trump supporters” and their motivations, I believe their desire for a Trump victory was due to one or some of the following four reasons.

A wish for regime collapse: Nearly 41 years after the Islamic revolution, Iranian society is highly polarized. While there is a core segment of the population that supports the Islamic regime, there is also a sizable population that is highly alienated from the regime and wishes for a regime collapse. These regime opponents have lost all hopes for political reform and would welcome any external intervention that might lead to a collapse of the ruling Islamic regime, even if it means economic hardship for the society.

A wish for change in regime behavior: Another group of the “Trump supporters” argue that even if the Trump sanctions do not lead to regime collapse, they might lead to some modifications in the regime’s policies, which will be beneficial to ordinary citizens. It is no secret that a large segment of Iran’s population does not support the Islamic regime’s support for the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and many other anti-Israel and anti-Saudi groups in the Arab world. They blame these policies for the economic sanctions and other hostilities of the United States and Israel towards Iran.

The positive unintended consequences: Some “Trump supporters” claim that the combined impact of the severe sanctions and the fear of other harsh Trump actions has already made Iran’s ruling regime more cautious in its domestic behavior. They point to two tangible impacts. First, there is some evidence that the regime is trying to improve the delivery of public goods and services in order to minimize discontent. There are also some indications that the Judicial Branch, which operates under President Rouhani’s political rival, Ebrahim Raisi, is devoting more resources to combat government corruption. Second, in some cases, the government has delayed the execution of political prisoners and cruel Islamic punishments such as cutting off fingers or a hand for theft. These types of Iranian “Trump supporters” believe that the ruling regime’s more cautious approach to these cases is partly a result of their fear of Trump and his unpredictable reactions.

Denial of a political victory to Rouhani: Some Iranian “Trump Supporters” were motivated by more cynical goals. They were the conservative political rivals of President Rouhani who were worried that a Biden victory will lead to easing of sanctions, which would be claimed as a diplomatic victory by President Rouhani and the moderate faction of the political elite that supports him. Such a victory so close to the June 2021 Iranian presidential elections, was perceived as undesirable by the conservative faction, which was rooting for a Trump victory which will make negotiations with the United States next to impossible.

It must also be added that while Iran’s economic conditions have sharply deteriorated since the announcement of the maximum pressure campaign in May 2018, many Iranians do not put the entire blame for the economic hardships on the sanctions. Instead, many believe that the corruption, economic mismanagement, and incompetence of the state is also to blame. This perception is reinforced by government-controlled media, which is managed by the opponents of President Rouhani and misses no opportunity to expose these shortcomings for factional political reasons. As a result, the Iranian “Trump supporters” that adhere to these perceptions do not feel guilty about supporting an American leader that has ruined the Iranian economy.