Opinion| Tehran, Washington, and the American Elections

Hatem Sadek
9 Min Read

Continuing from a previous article, launching US military strikes on Iran will boost US President Joe Biden’s chances of winning a second presidential term. Shortly after the killing of three American soldiers in Jordan, Washington pledged to retaliate against the armed factions loyal to Iran, which it blames for carrying out attacks as part of the escalation in the region since the aftermath of the attacks of last 7 October and the war on Gaza.

For the Democratic Biden administration, the benefits of the strike are very tempting. But the potential risks are also hard to overlook. Among these risks is that the strikes will strengthen the extremist movement in Iran as it nears parliamentary elections. They will also give a strong reason for Tehran’s allies in the region to defy all restrictions and use everything in their military arsenals. Moreover, in this case, the American military bases in the Gulf states will be fair game, which raises the cost of the war, for both the United States and the countries that host its bases. Not to mention the popular sympathy that will grow. More specifically, possible US strikes inside Iran will create a complicated regional equation and may have unforeseen consequences that will push the region back decades. So the price of Biden’s second term in this way will be intolerable.

Western media reports suggest that pressure from members of Congress from the Republican Party was a direct cause for pushing Biden to strike Iran’s military arms in the region. However, the latter did not fail to declare and repeat daily that he does not plan to escalate directly with Tehran… after all, he fears a bad outcome.

Historically, the Democratic Party in the United States depends on achieving external political and economic successes to support its position before the American voter. But this time, the Biden administration failed in that mission. In addition, the American President decided to turn back the clock and reverse all the policies followed by his former counterpart, Donald Trump, to erase every trace of him, especially in the United States’ foreign relations. The evidence is that if we compare the Trump period and the Biden period, which is close to its end, in foreign relations with China, Russia, the European Union, and even Iran, as well as the crises in the Middle East, we find that it was better and stronger in favor of the Trump period. You can easily notice that Biden, in all of the above, followed policies opposite to what Trump did in the same files and issues, which he handled in the manner of a successful businessman, and in which he made a lot of progress.

This contradiction is clear as we follow the series of confrontations between Washington and Tehran, and the confusion can easily be seen within the Biden administration, which started its term by removing many restrictions on the Iranian nuclear program and starting to lift the ban on Iranian funds in American banks that had been imposed by his predecessor. But this understanding quickly vanished and Biden engaged in an armed confrontation with it, which could lead to a direct conflict between the two sides.

Timing is a key factor in deciding whether to confront Tehran indirectly through its proxies in the region or directly by targeting its sites and facilities with military strikes. President Biden thinks that moving to confrontation now might boost his popularity in the polls, but he could also lose the election if the conflict drags on or turns out badly. There is a historical precedent in the US elections that involved Iran, when former Democratic President Jimmy Carter authorized a limited military operation to rescue the American hostages in the Iranian embassy in Tehran in 1980, after the revolution of Imam Khomeini. He hoped to improve his chances against the Republican candidate Ronald Reagan. The operation was a disaster, two helicopters collided, 8 American soldiers died, and the rest fled, leaving 5 helicopters in the Iranian desert. Carter lost the election, and some said that American intelligence had sabotaged the operation because they did not want Carter to have a second term, as he was trying to end the Cold War with Russia.

Iran is adept at playing both sides. It has armed allies in 4 Arab countries that can escalate or de-escalate those fronts, depending on Tehran’s orders. But it also makes sure that this escalation is within reasonable limits, without risking a backlash that could harm its interests.

There is plenty of evidence for this, and the situation between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon is a good example. Israel recently violated the 2006 agreements and targeted leaders in the southern suburbs, but Hezbollah did not retaliate. This was because Tehran told them to “hold back”. Tehran’s reactions always depend on its tolerance for any deviation from the script, and it knows that with the American military presence near Lebanon and Israel, any miscalculation on its part could jeopardize its survival in Syria and Lebanon. The same logic applies to Iran’s other proxies in the region, whether in Yemen, Iraq, or Syria.

There is always communication between Washington and Tehran through intermediaries and hotlines, to avoid or prepare for a potential breakdown. Iran often claims that it receives many letters from Washington through regional channels, expressing its reluctance to widen the war in the region. In light of President Biden’s recent statements that Iran is accountable but that Washington does not want war with it, Tehran interprets these messages as a sign of America’s fear of confronting it, especially in an election year.

This explains the recent American strikes against Iranian groups that killed three of its soldiers. These strikes were similar to the Iranian missile attacks on the US Ain al-Asad base in Iraq, shortly after the killing of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January 2020. Former US President Donald Trump said that these attacks happened after the Iranians contacted Washington and informed them that they would hit the base. As a result, no American soldier was killed, as the base was cleared of human and military targets.

So, was there an Iranian-American understanding before this strike, just as there was before Tehran attacked the Ain al-Assad base? Most likely, but not entirely, the answer would be “yes.” But the most important question is: Will this understanding continue, and what will be its fate if opinion polls in America show a sharp decline in Biden’s popularity compared to his arch-enemy Trump? For the second time, I think that the answer is that the understanding will fall in the face of the temptations of obtaining a second term for Biden. Therefore, the time element will remain decisive because President Biden himself left the issue of the timing of ending the strikes open, which means that matters are pending depending on the development of the American internal situation. I believe that the decision will remain postponed until further notice.

Dr. Hatem Sadek: Professor at Helwan University

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