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Why many of Iran's “moderates” say they prefer Trump to Clinton

US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally organized by the Tea Party Patriots against the Iran nuclear deal in front of the Capitol in Washington, DC, on September 9, 2015.
US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally organized by the Tea Party Patriots against the Iran nuclear deal in front of the Capitol in Washington, DC, on September 9, 2015.

Much of the world seems fairly put off by Donald Trump. Europeans are annoyed that he has threatened to withdraw from NATO. The Japanese and South Koreans seem upset about his intention to withdraw US troops from their shores. Mexicans dislike him so much they are selling Donald Trump piñatas like hotcakes. Even the Chinese seem worried about his idea to slap them with a 45 percent tariff and his support for a nuclear-armed Japan.

So does anyone outside of America like Trump? Many people point to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He and Trump have expressed admiration for each other’s leadership qualities. But beyond Putin, there is (unsurprisingly) little foreign support for Trump’s trademark blend of American nationalism and xenophobia.

Recent conversations, however, have led us to suspect that there might be another country of potential Trump supporters out there: Iran.

It's not just hard-liners — "moderate" Iranians prefer a President Trump, too

Hard-liners in Iran, who favor greater confrontation with the West, were generally enthused by the opposition from Trump (and the rest of the Republican presidential field) to the Iranian nuclear deal concluded by the Obama administration.

Of course, Iranian hard-liners see the deal as terrible for Iran, rather than for the United States, as Trump does, but it nonetheless gives them a certain unity of goals. While they view Trump as crazy on a range of issues, when it comes to the nuclear deal they apparently prefer the moral clarity of insanity to a more subtle opponent.

But the preference for Trump actually goes beyond the hard-liners. It turns out that many of Iran's so-called "moderates" also seem to prefer a President Trump to a President Hillary Clinton.

Over the course of several recent trips to Iran and international conferences in Europe, one of us (Geranmayeh) has talked with some of Iran's "moderate" voices: Iranian officials, influential political elites, and private businesspeople — who, by their nature and position, tend to be interested in seeing Iran become more engaged with the world and helping Iran emerge from the economic isolation of recent years.

For them, the advantages of Trump are less obvious, and differ from the reasoning put forward by the hard-liners, but are nonetheless intriguing. In short, they calculate that Trump would provide better opportunities for Iran to reestablish its place in the world.

The more countries Trump pisses off as president of the United States, the better the world looks for Iran

The current problem, as these players see it, is that Iran remains economically isolated in the world, even after the nuclear deal.

This is in large part because the sanctions on Iran were imposed by a very broad, nearly global, coalition that included the US, the European Union, Japan, China, and even Russia. And while non-US sanctions have largely been eased, they are subject to "snapback" if any one member of the coalition claims that Iran has violated the deal. US primary sanctions also remain intact.

The limitations imposed by continuing US sanctions and the fear of snapback or future congressional sanctions has caused most European businesses and banks to stay clear of the Iranian market.

As a result, Iran's reintegration into global markets has been very slow. It is already almost four months after implementation of the nuclear deal began, yet Iran has so far been unable to feel much tangible economic benefit.

Trump’s greatest promise for Iran, then, comes from the tensions he might create within the sanctions coalition. The idea goes like this: If America’s relationship with these partners were to fray because a President Trump alienates nearly every country on Earth, they might decide that remaining in the coalition is not worth losing out on potentially lucrative economic opportunities in Iran.

Even if Trump were to go as far as to tear up the Iranian nuclear deal without agreement from the allies, this would leave the United States isolated from Europe, Russia, and China. That isolation would allow Iran to cultivate better ties with all of them.

In other words, Trump’s great attraction for Iran is the enmity he inspires in the rest of the world.

It goes beyond the sanctions issue, too. Many Iranians are particularly enthused by Trump’s approach to Saudi Arabia. For Iranians, Saudi Arabia’s undue and malign influence in Washington is one of the root causes of Iran’s problems in the region. Iranian officials have long argued that the Saudi position won’t move constructively until the United States stops acting as a security provider to Riyadh.

This remains the case even as President Obama has referred to the Saudis as free riders and the US relationship with Saudi Arabia has frayed in recent years.

But Trump has promised to take Obama’s frustration with Saudi Arabia to the extreme, threatening to stop American oil purchases from Saudi Arabia and even to remove "the cloak of American protection" from the kingdom. This sounds pretty good to the Iranians.

Trump is a man Iranians could do business with

Many Iranians also like the idea of a President Trump who views the practice of international relations as the "art of the deal" — that is, as a series of tough negotiations. Trump’s comments to the effect that the main problem with the Iran nuclear deal is that it does not offer economic advantages to US firms over European or Russian ones implies that his problems with the deal are more economic than ideological.

Solving ideological problems requires nearly impossible political compromises; solving economic problems just requires money and clever deals. Iranians have always viewed themselves as pragmatic and effective negotiators. They believe that in international negotiations shorn of malign Saudi influence and anti-Iranian American ideology, they could make effective deals to fully reintegrate into the world economy.

In other words, Trump is a man Iranians can do with business with.

President Trump would be, well, not President Clinton

Finally, Iranians usually appreciate that Trump is not Hillary Clinton.

Clinton is known in Tehran as the "sanctions lady," the person who orchestrated international buy-in to the unprecedented sanctions regime against Iran in 2010 that had a crippling impact on the Iranian economy.

Many Iranians we spoke with are concerned that under a Clinton presidency, the United States will introduce a new wave of secondary sanctions to confront Iran’s regional behavior. And, indeed, she has staked out an extremely tough position on enforcing the deal and on Iran in general.

Moreover, unlike Trump, Clinton is seen by many Iranians as too constrained by establishment links with pro-Israel lobbies and her own ideological enmity toward Iran to be able to deal with them flexibly — even when it might serve US interests to do so, such as, for example, in Iraq. Indeed, they see Clinton as likely to patch up some of the bad blood with the Saudis that emerged under Obama.

By contrast, Trump’s position on Russia and his attitude toward Putin has been understood in some Iranian political circles as a sign that Trump will be less blinded by traditional US ideological positions on Iran, creating more flexibility on regional dealmaking.

America needs friends

Iranians don’t get to vote in American elections, which is probably a good thing for everyone involved. But it nonetheless matters, or should, to Americans what the world thinks of their choices.

To be fair, Trump does point to some genuine problems with US allies, and those alliances could use a bit of rethinking and rebalancing. But if, in the process, a new US president deeply alienates every US ally in the world, it may please Iran and Vladimir Putin, but it will not make America stronger.

As the Iranians could probably testify, a world in which Russia is your only friend is a very lonely place indeed.

Jeremy Shapiro is the research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). Find him on Twitter @JyShapiro. Ellie Geranmayeh is a policy fellow at ECFR. Find her on Twitter @EllieGeranmayeh.

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