June 2, 2017 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1317

Iran's Presidential Election And The Trump Administration's Emerging Shift Towards The Iranian Regime

June 2, 2017 | By A. Savyon and Yigal Carmon*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1317


The result of Iran's May 19, 2017 presidential election indicates several characteristics of the Iranian political system:

The clear victory of incumbent Hassan Rohani, who won 57% of the vote against his ideological rival Ebrahim Raisi – that is, 23.5 million votes vs. 15.8 million, with 41 million voters, or 76% of the electorate, going to the polls – shows that the Iranian public clearly prefers the pragmatic-reformist camp to the ideological camp. However, it should be remembered that both of the leading candidates, Rohani and Raisi, are representatives of the Iranian regime and of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and serve them first and foremost.

The Iranian Regime's Double Deception

The regime's holding of the election allows it to maintain a double deception, both towards Iranian citizens and towards the West:

  1. Elections in Iran are not democratic, because Supreme Leader Khamenei can and does disqualify candidates as he sees fit – for example, in this presidential election, he disqualified former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; in the previous election, in 2013, he disqualified the late Hashemi Rafsanjani, and in both he disqualified women and religious minority candidates, and others. It should be noted that in Iran there are no political parties, and the Supreme Leader's control of the candidate selection process is absolute.

  2. President Hassan Rohani, the candidate of the pragmatic-reformist camp, is the Iranian revolutionary regime's own flesh and blood, and he has no ability, tools, or powers to implement the platform of ideas on which he ran: protecting human rights, effecting rapprochement with the West, obtaining foreign investments to rebuild Iran's economy, freeing the political prisoners, allowing a free press, and so on.[1]

In light of the essential and tremendous gap between, on the one hand, the distorted picture of democracy and the promise of liberal change for which Rohani was elected, and on the other hand the reality in which the elected president and his government serve the regime and the Supreme Leader, not the Iranian people, a repeat of what happened in the 2005 elections can be expected. At that time, an extremist presidential candidate, Ahmadinejad, was elected over his pragmatic rival Rafsanjani, as a result of the public's disappointment with reformist president Mohammad Khatami. In the same way, the disappointment with Rohani which is becoming evident even now is likely to lead to a public call to boycott the next presidential election and to the voting in of another extremist candidate.

The degree of deceit in these elections towards the West, in many diverse areas, must also be emphasized:

  1. The president-elect and the pragmatic political camp do not serve the people; they serve the regime, and they work for it in the international arena, just as the Basij serves the regime within Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) ensures the regime's survival and its spread in the region. Thus, the JCPOA should be seen not as a move aimed at serving the Iranian people, but as a means for ensuring the survival of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the event of a Western attack, now or at any time within the next 15 years.[2] Thus, the JCPOA, which is being depicted by the representatives of the pragmatic camp, i.e. President Rohani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, [3]as an achievement arrived at thanks to the votes of the electorate in 2013, and as aimed at serving the people and encouraging lifting of the sanctions, foreign investments, and domestic development, is not aimed at this at all. Leader Khamenei, who was involved in and approved all phases of the JCPOA, bans foreign investment and prevents both cooperation with the West and Western aid for development in Iran.

  2. The result of the presidential election are being presented to the West by Rohani and Zarif as a public mandate for a policy of progress and development in Iran – but in actuality Rohani and Zarif are defending and supporting Iran's regional expansion, which is the declared goal of the regime and of the IRGC, in the form of exporting the revolution.[4]

The Question Of Relations With The U.S.

In Iran's ideological circles, it is claimed that the Trump administration's refraining from leveling additional significant sanctions against Iran and from taking action against the JCPOA (in comparison, for example, to its decisive action to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement on climate change with Europe) was aimed at helping Rohani get reelected.[5]

There are indeed signs of a discrepancy between President Trump's harsh anti-Iran rhetoric and his actions which attest to openness towards the Iranian regime (see Appendix).

The position of the U.S. administration vis-à-vis contacts with Iran is one of openness:

  • A senior White House official told Al-Monitor on May 4, 2017: "If Iran wants to talk... [about its behavior in the region] Islamic Republic officials can pick up the phone and call us," and added that the administration is focused on actions, not words.[6]

  • At a May 20, 2017 press conference in Riyadh, alongside Saudi Foreign Minister 'Adel Al-Jubeir, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson refrained from reiterating his previous harshly critical statements against Iran in Congress, instead saying, in response to a question: "Well, in terms of whether I’d ever pick the phone up, I’ve never shut off the phone to anyone that wants to talk or have a productive conversation. At this point, I have no plans to call my counterpart in Iran, although, in all likelihood, we will talk at the right time."[7]

It does appear that the Iranian side has responded positively to the U.S. administration's encouragement to launch a dialogue with it: President Rohani, even during his election campaign, and Foreign Minister Zarif have both announced that there was a possibility that Iran would negotiate with the U.S. to remove the remaining sanctions on human rights and terrorism.

In a May 21, 2017 article in the Al-Arabi Al-Jadid daily, Zarif appealed, on behalf of the Iranian government, to President Trump, apparently in response to the statements by Secretary of State Tillerson the previous day in Riyadh. He proposed launching a regional peace initiative whose completion would be conditional upon a halt to Saudi activity in Yemen and to Saudi influence in the region. Appealing directly to President Trump, he declared that Iran was willing to cooperate with forces from outside the region – hinting at the U.S. – in order to restore stability in Syria.

Also, Rohani said, at a May 22, 2017 victory press conference: "We must wait until the thought and position of the U.S. administration becomes more solidified, and then we will be able to more accurately judge whether to cooperate with it. With regard to the rest of the [non-nuclear] sanctions, if the people demand [it], and if we arrive at a national consensus together with all the power apparatuses [in the regime], and if the Leader agrees to set out this path, we will all stand behind the Leader and will implement this matter. It is hard work, but it is possible... Since the beginning of the revolution, we have never had any problem with America; it was they themselves who started the enmity towards the Iranian people."[8]

Foreign Minister Zarif reiterated this position in a May 30, 2017 interview with, and added: "Despite the difficulties and the bad impression left by America, it is possible to also remove the non-nuclear sanctions."

In light of this, it would not be surprising if it turns out that the Trump administration, contrary to its stated anti-Iran positions, is even now maintaining secret contacts with the Iranian regime.

Unofficial reports in this matter have already appeared in the Iranian media. For example, on May 31, 2017, former Majlis member Nabavian, leaked the information that in secret Iran-U.S. contacts, the U.S. had demanded that Iran hand over Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani and other IRGC officials in exchange for concessions for Iran in the international implementation of Financial Action Task Force (FATF) against funding terrorism. The Iranian Foreign Ministry denied these statements and is threatening to prosecute Nabavian.[9]

If these reports turn out to be true, it means that President Trump is continuing, and even deepening, his predecessor Obama's Iran policy, based on the same false claim that Rohani's election makes negotiations and agreements with Iran possible – even though negotiations will only take place if they are approved by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Rohani has no independent status; he is not separate from the regime, but serves it.

*A. Savyon is Director of the MEMRI Iran Project; Y. Carmon is President of MEMRI.

Appendix: The Emerging Shift In Trump's Attitude Towards Iran: Words vs. Deeds

The following are excerpts from MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1314, Iran Tests The Trump Administration, May 8, 2017.

The JCPOA – From Criticism To Endorsement

  1. In April 2017, the Trump administration sent Congress a letter confirming that Iran was meeting the demands of the JCPOA.[10] With this action, the administration legitimized the conditions set out in the Obama era that allow for no real inspection of Iran's military nuclear development. The Trump administration could have postponed the confirmation that Iran is abiding by the JCPOA,[11] or could have exposed the flawed terms of inspection set out by the Obama administration that were aimed at shielding Iran from serious and intrusive inspection – but chose not to, and instead gave these terms credence.[12] The Iranian side even warned the Trump administration not to dare to reveal these agreements and the administration heeded the warning.[13]

  2. Furthermore, in April 2017, the U.S. joined the G-7, which states that it supports the JCPOA: "We support the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as an important contribution to the non-proliferation regime."[14] That is, the Trump administration has moved from criticizing the JCPOA to endorsing it.

  3. It should be noted that the U.S. also joined decisions of the Joint Commission of the JCPOA in April 2017 aimed at giving Iran additional incentives in the framework of civilian nuclear cooperation with it.[15]

Iranian Activity To Destabilize The Region – Trump Administration: Statements Against, Actions For

In Congress, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson harshly warned against Iranian regime activity in the region,[16] but the warning was contradicted by the following Trump administration actions:

  1. At the end of his statements against Iran's activity, Tillerson announced that the administration had launched an interagency review of its Iran policy. This review appeared to be unnecessary in light of the resolute statements that Tillerson had just made, and of other statements by the Trump administration regarding Iran's activity in the region. What this announcement means in practical terms is that Senate legislation against Iran will be pushed off until after the conclusion of the review, because the Senate will not continue legislating while a White House review on the same issue is underway.[17]

  2. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced during his April visit to Saudi Arabia that the solution to the internal conflict in Yemen lies with the UN: "Our goal is for that crisis down there [in Yemen] – that ongoing fight – to be put in front of a U.N.-brokered negotiating team and try to resolve this politically as soon as possible... It has gone on for a long time."[18] It should be noted that turning to the UN in this matter serves Iran's interests and is also characteristic of President Obama's approach.

  3. The Trump administration has supported the Russia-Turkey agreement, the De-Escalation Zones Plan, and by so doing recognized Iran's role as a guarantor of the plan, legitimizing the continued presence of Iranian forces in Syria. Later, the U.S. State Department made an announcement that was internally contradictory, that included both actual support for the agreement and expression of reservations about it. The U.S. is not party to the agreement, it said, but "[w]e appreciate the efforts of Turkey and the Russian Federation to pursue this agreement and have encouraged the Syrian opposition to participate actively in the discussions despite the difficult conditions on the ground." However, it added: "We continue to have concerns about the Astana agreement, including the involvement of Iran as a so-called 'guarantor.' Iran's activities in Syria have only contributed to the violence, not stopped it, and Iran's unquestioning support for the Assad regime has perpetuated the misery of ordinary Syrians."[19]

[Indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an interview with the French daily Le Figaro, on May 31, 2017, stated: "It was also very difficult to agree on these issues with the U.S. Incidentally, we have been seeing some shifts lately; and there are actual results. I spoke to President Trump on the telephone, and he supported the idea, in general, of creating de-escalation zones [in Syria]."[20] It should be emphasized that it is not clear whether the U.S. has agreed to the details of the Russia-Iran-Turkey plan, but the Iranians believe that they themselves are legitimate "guarantors."]


  1. In a briefing of journalist Laura Rozen, known to be a supporter of the Obama administration and its Iran policy, a White House official clarified that "Iran supports Hezbollah and sends weapons to support the Houthi rebels. The Trump administration will demonstrate its dissatisfaction with Iran's behavior in the region with actions." Yet he added: "If Iran wants to talk about it, Islamic Republic officials can pick up the phone and call us."[21]

[1] The Kayhan daily, the mouthpiece of the ideological camp, wrote on May 25, 2017 that Rohani was attempting to back down from his campaign promises in various areas. It should be noted that Rohani made statements regarding protecting human rights at a press conference marking his May 22 win: "I am responsible for the rights of every one of Iran's citizens, without any distinctions, even those who live abroad, and if I see or feel that the rights of a single Iranian are being trampled, inside or outside Iran, I will support him however I can. I will deal with matters connected to the Judiciary with letters directly to the judiciary system, [and] by meeting with the heads of the three authorities. One of my goals in the next government is the implementation of the Human Rights Charter." (, Iran, May 22, 2017). However, Judiciary head Amolei Larijani hinted, in a response to President Rohani's campaign promises to act to free the leaders of the reformist Green Movement who have been under house arrest since 2011, that Rohani's statements were not part of his jurisdiction but were the jurisdiction of the Supreme National Security Council and the Judiciary. He added that Rohani's statements crossed the regime's red lines and endangered national security. Asr-e Iran, Iran, May 29, 2017.

[3] See, for example, Foreign Minister Zarif's statements in his May 26, 2017 op-ed for The New York Times.

[4] Ibid. See quote from Zarif's op-ed: "...Iranians were celebrating the outcome of a hard-fought election. The vote manifested the determination of Iran's electorate to continue on the path of moderation and constructive engagement based on mutual respect that brought the world the nuclear deal in 2015" and also his defense in it of Iran's policy of regional expansion.

[5] Also, at this time similar statements were widespread in the media outlets of Iran's ideological circles, prior to, during, and even after the election. For example, see the May 30, 2017 editorial in Kayhan.

[6] Al-Monitor, May 4, 2017.

[7], May 20, 2017.

[8] (Iran) May 22, 2017.

[9] Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi said in response that the FATF was a financial agreement with the world and was unconnected to the citizens of the countries, and also was not signed with the U.S. Such statements, he added, disparaged the people's understanding. ISNA, Iran, June 1, 2016. Also, the Javan daily raged against Rohani and his attempt to please the U.S. administration on the FATF issue. Javan, Iran, May 27, 2017.

[10], April 18, 2017.

[11] See, for example, article by former U.S. Ambassador to the UN and former undersecretary of State for arms control and international security affairs John Bolton, Washington Times, April 26, 2017.


[13] On February 12, 2017, Iranian Majlis Foreign Policy and National Security Committee chairman Alaa Al-Adin Boroujerdi warned of the possibility that Trump would reveal Iran's secret documents in the JCPOA: "If Trump wants to publish the secret documents between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, this will constitute a violation of the IAEA's promise that it undertakes not to give any country, including the U.S., Iran's secret and nuclear documents." &UID=346771.

[14] Delegations/russia/24674/g7-foreign-ministers-meeting-italy-10-11-april-2017, April 13, 2017.


[16], April 18, 2017.

[17] This is a familiar and well-known tactic. When an administration seeks to block a legislative initiative in the parliamentary body, it announces an initiative of its own on the same topic. In this instance, Tillerson's announcement included no information about when the review would be completed.

[18] Stars and Stripes, April 18, 2017.

[19], May 4, 2017.

[20], May 31, 2017.

[21], May 4, 2017.

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