Shortly after major U.S. news organizations called Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, eighty-one-year-old Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has been ruling the country since 1989, issued a characteristically harsh statement:
“The situation in the US and what they themselves say about their elections is a spectacle! This is an example of the ugly face of liberal democracy in the US. Regardless of the outcome, one thing is absolutely clear, the definite political, civil, and moral decline of the US regime.”
Khamenei’s derision was a reminder that Tehran’s opposition to the United States is trifold: applied equally to leaders of both parties, an enduring pillar of the 1979 Iranian revolution, and central to Iran’s identity as an Islamic republic. Although Iranian President Hassan Rouhani—whose limited presidential authority expires in the summer of 2021—publicly expressed hope that a Biden administration might return to the Iran nuclear deal, Khamenei made clear that a new administration in Washington would have no ability to change Tehran’s longtime policies. U.S. elections are “none of our business,” he said. “Our policy is clear and well calculated and [presidents’] coming and going will have no impact on it.”
Khamenei’s View at Home
Khamenei’s views do not reflect the sentiments of a young Iranian population—with a median age of thirty-two—that overwhelmingly welcomes better relations with the United States and the potential sanctions relief that could result from a Biden presidency. Yet Iranians’ popular cynicism about their own regime’s repression and mismanagement coupled with pessimism about Washington’s ability to effect change in Tehran—using either engagement or coercion—has contributed to a profound and pervasive national fatalism. “In the last forty-two years,” a friend wrote me from Tehran shortly after Biden’s victory, “we’ve had U.S. presidents who’ve sought to befriend our government and those who’ve sought to overthrow it. . . . Nothing has changed, and nothing will change.”
The United States and Iran
Tehran’s role in major global security challenges—including nuclear proliferation, cybersecurity, terrorism, and the deadly conflicts in Syria and Yemen—will continue to merit U.S. attention. While a full or partial restoration of the 2015 nuclear deal may be possible, meaningful change in the U.S.-Iran relationship is unlikely until there is a change of leadership in Tehran. For his part, Khamenei continues to predict that it is the United States, not the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose days are numbered. “Such an empire will not last long,” he said shortly before the U.S. election. “It’s obvious that when a regime reaches this point, it will not live for much longer and will be destroyed.”
Despite Khamenei’s hubris, a Biden presidency presents both an opportunity and a challenge for Tehran. The opportunity is a chance to improve the country’s moribund economy; the challenge is that Tehran will no longer be able to effectively use President Donald Trump as a pretext or distraction for its domestic repression, economic failures, and regional aggression.