Actions in Anticipation of Iranian Elections

In Hard Choices: Memos to the President, CSIS scholars analyze the opportunities and decisions the next administration will face.

FROM: The National Security Adviser
SUBJ: Actions in Anticipation of Iranian Elections
DATE: February 1, 2021

Iran is scheduled to hold elections for President Rouhani’s successor on June 18, 2021. While we cannot shape the outcome of those elections, we can influence the climate in which they take place, should we wish to.

The Issue

While Iran’s president must defer to the supreme leader on strategic questions, the president plays a major role setting the tone of Iran’s engagement with the world. Many Iranians see President Rouhani’s eight-year term in office as a failure, as his gambit to engage with the United States led to a re-imposition of sanctions and a resultant financial crisis. Some here argue that Rouhani’s rapprochement was a ruse, distracting from Iran’s nuclear ambitions and regional aggression. Others suggest that it offered a path toward reduced tensions between Iran and the world, even if fell far short of eliminating them.

Today, Iran’s conservatives appear poised to advance. They will run on the idea that the United States and its allies represent an enduring, existential threat to Iran. They will seek to rally the public on the idea that “maximum pressure” must be met with “maximum resistance,” and they will explore low-cost, hard-to-attribute ways that will impose high costs on the United States and its allies. They understand our aversion to an open-ended war in the Gulf, and they are likely to explore tactics to raise tensions (as they did in the summer of 2019, when they attacked energy infrastructure and shot down a U.S. Global Hawk surveillance drone).

The Opportunity

Iran’s elections are heavily managed affairs, but public sentiment appears to play a significant role. If the public were to believe that there was no hope for negotiations with the United States, they would be more likely to support a candidate who ran on a platform of increased confrontation, insisting that Iran’s actions would force the United States to the bargaining table. The last such president, the populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, meaningfully advanced Iran’s nuclear program (arguably in the futile pursuit of leverage against the United States). While a leader who advocates for negotiations with the United States would not survive the current political climate in Iran, greater confidence in eventual negotiations could help build support for a more pragmatically oriented leader. Also, if the Iranian leadership sensed the potential for meaningful negotiations with the United States, they might exclude more hardline figures from running so as to preserve their options.

The Decision

Rouhani cannot conclude an agreement with the United States in his final months, and we would be hard-pressed to run a full-scale negotiation in our opening months. Still, the way we approach Rouhani and Iran in the coming four months could encourage more pragmatic strains in Iranian politics. The Iranians are eager to understand your intentions toward them while also being keenly aware of their weaknesses. They will not want to appear too eager to negotiate, and they will see too much cooperation as a sign of further weakness. We should expect some Iranian malign behavior whatever we do.

In the face of that malign behavior, there is a strong case to be made that the Iranians respect strength and resolve. You may wish to consider the following:

  1. Conveying, through the Swiss channel or other avenues, a clear set of red lines for Iranian behavior on both the nuclear program and regional activities.
  2. Covert support to forces targeting Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) presence in Lebanon and Syria.
  3. Directing a change in the rules of engagement for U.S. forces in the Gulf to deter IRGC Navy ships from approaching U.S. vessels.
  4. Sanctioning a major Chinese company that continues to do business with Iran in order to inhibit further the development of joint economic ties.

If you decide to pursue a strategy of foreshadowing engagement, there are several low-cost gestures you could make to signal future intentions:

  1. Include language in the 2021 State of the Union that refers to the importance of diminishing tensions with adversaries.
  2. Boost Fifth Fleet deconfliction efforts in the Gulf.
  3. Have the Department of Treasury announce efforts to facilitate the use of the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), the EU-Iran trading mechanism, for Covid-19-related commodities.
  4. Send mid-level officials to participate in a regional security dialogue hosted by a Gulf country in which Iranian officials participate.
  5. Announce an administration intention to review Iran’s cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency “with fresh eyes.”

The Iranians will test you in the coming months. A harsh response might end hostile behavior in the near term, but it also might also color Iran’s June elections. What would you like your policy toward Iran to emphasize?

___ Sharply deter aggression

___ Foreshadow potential engagement

___ Defer focus if possible

Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program