TEHRAN — Amid uncertainty worldwide about the presidency of Donald J. Trump, recent conversations with people in Tehran suggest that the public in Iran, of all places — a country that may well prove a central focus of Trump’s presidency — aren’t unduly worried about the incoming US leader, and plenty of them are actually quite pleased about the imminence of president Trump. Despite having so much at stake under the incoming administration, there is a world-weary calm — and even some optimism — on the streets of Tehran.
“I was very happy with Trump’s victory,” Shirin, a hairdresser, told a journalist conducting interviews here. “Someone with his financial success, in the heart of the largest economy in the world, can no doubt play a very effective role in the global economy, so we could also benefit from it.”
In interviews with the Tehran-based journalist, ordinary Iranians expressed confidence in both capitalism as well as the American system of checks and balances to prevent erratic or irrational decision making on the part of the new president. They were generally approving of the US political system, and some were quite open in criticizing their own.
While it was understandable to encounter little concern over Trump’s perceived courting of alt-right constituents and questionable attitudes towards women, it was striking that many (though by no means all) of the Iranians we spoke to feel that Trump will be at worst harmless to their country, and possibly helpful — even if by virtue of his inexperience.
‘There are anti-war groups who will keep Trump in check’
Those interviewed held jobs across a variety of sectors and spanned the socioeconomic spectrum. The journalist spoke to writers, artists, government employees, students, soldiers, highly skilled workers and many in the service industry, such as taxi drivers and restaurateurs. Job type or economic status did not seem to impact opinion, and responses were often unexpected.
One information technology student lauded the incoming president for having America’s best interests at heart, and predicted approvingly that Trump will be “willing to extend his support even to his opponents [the Iranians] in order to focus more on America’s benefits, unlike what happens here [in Iran].”
She said she was also confident that come what may, he can’t assume the position of sultan.
“There are anti-war groups who will keep Trump in check,” she said. “In general, politics of governing administrations is very different in America, and the president is not the sole decision maker and not the only one who holds power.”
This faith in American democracy, and its capacity to keep even a president in check, was quite widely expressed in our conversations. Iranians are all too familiar with authoritarian rule, and don’t see a danger of it in the US.
About that nuclear deal
A key focus of the Tehranis-in-the-street interviews, inevitably, was the Iran nuclear deal. As the incoming president tries to forge a cohesive foreign policy plan, Iran’s nuclear program is certain to be one of the most pivotal issues. Should Trump make good on campaign promises to dismantle the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — the implications would be far-reaching for Iran in terms of both international relations and domestic consequences. But Trump has also said he will enforce the deal rigorously, rather than dismantle it, and a senior Republican senator, Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker, said last week that he expects Trump to uphold the deal, because tearing it up would lead to crisis.
The JCPOA entails the lifting of economic and diplomatic sanctions on Iran while allowing for limited nuclear enrichment, in exchange for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) oversight of Iranian nuclear facilities and a commitment that the program will be used for exclusively peaceful means. The agreement was finally implemented in July of 2015 following more than 12 years of negotiations.
General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, the Iranian Armed Forces’ chief of staff, has responded dismissively to the prospect of a Trump administration rollback of the nuclear deal, saying that “threatening Iran in the Persian Gulf is just a joke.” But President Hassan Rouhani has been more circumspect. In a speech last month at Tehran University, he said that Iran would neither “mourn nor celebrate” Trump’s rise to power, but would not allow the administration to repeal the agreement. In the same speech, Rouhani accused the US of violating the agreement, and said that the regime would “react” if current US president Barack Obama signed the Extension of Iran Sanctions Act. The act, extending the possibility of sanctions for another 10 years, was passed overwhelmingly in Congress and became law on December 16, though Obama abstained from signing it.
Citizens of the Islamic republic feel no need to parrot the formal government stance, but they aren’t exactly panicking, either.
Several respondents relied on Trump’s predictable focus on profit to guide him towards effective decision-making, in this and other areas.
“Trump wouldn’t make such a huge mistake [of repealing JCPOA],” said Saeed, a religious official.
“In fact,” he added, “the issue is not whether he has the power or not. The fact is that he’s an educated man and a pro in economic games, and knows very well that to make money, one doesn’t mix politics in.”
Saeed believed that Trump would prove to be “much better” for Iran than Hillary Clinton would have been, and he was not alone. Like many Trump supporters in the US, many Iranians seem to believe that the president-elect’s lack of political experience is an advantage rather than a drawback — though not necessarily for the same reasons.
Parsa, a university student, argued that Trump’s election could mark “a great opportunity for Iran.”
He labeled Trump as a businessman who “knows nothing about politics.”
“Therefore,” Parsa elaborated, “a political pro like Clinton would have a much stronger hand in discussing the fate of the JCPOA and renegotiating the contract.”
‘He’s a pro in economic games, and knows very well that to make money, one doesn’t mix politics in’
Across the board, most Iranians we spoke with feel secure in the notion that herd safety will prevent Trump from making any rash decisions. There was a clear sense that Congress and the incoming president’s close advisers will suffice as safety measures to prevent disaster.
Masoud, a movie director, asserted that the president is more of a figurehead and can’t simply do anything he or she pleases.
“Presidents of developed countries have wise and educated advisers who show them the right plan of action,” said Masoud. “They handle macro politics related to any given field. Unlike Iran, America doesn’t train dwarf managers who capitulate to uneducated advisers with limited perspective on important matters. So we know that Trump’s reactions against other countries will be based on his country’s macro policies.”
He’ll be ‘much better’ than Clinton would have been
Respondents were confident that regardless of how much power Trump would wield within the US, the nuclear deal cannot be reversed based on the will of one country alone, superpower or not.
Darioush, an actor, cited European support of JCPOA, and doubted the other P5+1 countries would agree to its undoing.
“Of course,” he said, “Obama’s approach was more cooperative. But until Trump takes office, we can’t claim he is against the international agreement.”
Shirin was also optimistic — to a point.
“The JCPOA’s stability depends on our foreign policies, and it was our fault that we reached a place where JCPOA had to be imposed on us,” she said.
“But Trump won’t tear down the agreement unless we leave him no other choice.”
The interviews for this article were conducted by an independent Tehran-based journalist. The article was written by The Times of Israel’s Yaakov Schwartz and Hamidreza Zarifinia.