Responding to the US Elections, Anticipating Elections in Iran

Raz Zimmt analyzes the reactions in Iranian social media to the election of Donald J. Trump to the American Presidency.

When the results of the United States presidential election became known, social networking sites (SNS) were flooded with the responses of Iranian users surprised by the election of the Republican candidate, Donald Trump. Until that point, the Iranian public had not shown much interest in the stormy electoral campaign, and the prevailing opinion was that Hillary Clinton would be elected, as shown by an Iranian Students Polling Agency survey.[1] Users’ responses included concern about Trump’s election, as well as approval of his victory. This discourse gave voice to Iranian citizens’ attitudes towards developments in the US, in addition to reigniting domestic political power struggles within the Islamic Republic.

Many users’ responses to Trump’s victory reflected a critical, adversarial attitude towards him, primarily in light of his behavior and declarations during the election campaign. Some respondents expressed concern that his election would harm the relationship between Iran and the United States, and were particularly worried that the new president would make good on the threat he made during his campaign to cancel the nuclear agreement. There were many mocking comments among the responses. “The only good thing about the election of Trump as president is that we will be able to laugh at the Americans for the next four years,” tweeted one user.[2] “This is one small step for Trump, but one giant embarrassment for humankind,” responded another.[3] Others cynically recommended that, in light of the election results, US citizens ought to immigrate to Iran.

Several users, especially among Iran's conservative right wing, expressed the opinion that Trump’s victory was testimony to American society's moral crisis, its deeply rooted racism, and the weakness of its political system. In response to the allegations of rape and sexual abuse directed at Trump during the election campaign, one Iranian journalist tweeted that Trump’s win was evidence that “in the West, a rapist is the most popular.”[4] In the eyes of his critics, Trump’s victory proved the words of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who described the US election as “a public show displaying the crimes and failures” of the Americans. A few days before the elections, in a speech marking the anniversary of the takeover of the US Embassy in Iran, Khamenei said that the presidential candidates had directed enough substantiated allegations of immorality at each other that they both disgraced the US.[5]

Unlike the predictors of doom who expressed concern about the President-elect, other users claimed that there was no reason to draw hasty conclusions regarding his future policies based only on campaign promises. They contended that Trump would not be quick to implement his combative declarations, and supported their opinion with his ameliorative post-election speech. One of them noted that the usage of politicians’ election slogans is similar to that of the phrase “I love you,” during sexual intercourse.[6] Another user, apparently identified with the conservatives, wrote that it would be irrelevant if the nuclear agreement were canceled as a result of Trump’s election, because in any case, it had no effect on the life of Iranian citizens.[7]

Among those responding on SNS were also some who thought that Trump’s victory would serve Iranian interests. They noted his lack of experience in managing foreign policy, his intention to focus on domestic American issues, and his declared antagonism to the Arab Gulf States as factors that might be beneficial to Iran.

However, the discourse opposing Trump should not be thought to suggest a preference for the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton. To the contrary, comments on SNS regarding Clinton include a tangible level of distrust, particularly in light of the rigid stance she took towards Iran while serving as Secretary of State under President Obama. From the perspective of many Iranians, there is no significant difference between the candidates’ fundamentally hostile attitude towards the Islamic Republic. As one user declared, “America is America. There is no difference between Trump and Clinton. There is that external difference between an elephant [symbol of the Republican Party] and a donkey [symbol of the Democratic Party], but neither has understanding.”[8]

Although the discourse focused on Trump’s victory in the US election, it also reflected differences of opinions about domestic politics. Among supporters of President Rouhani, there was clearly a higher level of disappointment over Clinton’s loss, and concern that the election of Trump would reinforce extremists in Iran. On the other hand, conservative right supporters of the regime mocked the reformist journalists who hurried to declare Clinton president, and hoped that the defeat of the Democratic presidential candidate would weaken President Rouhani's standing prior to the elections expected in May 2017. Ali Naderi, editor in chief of the hardline website Raja News, claimed that Brexit and the US elections demonstrate the failure of globalization, and a growing tendency towards isolationism in the West. This contrasts with Rouhani's approach, which is characterized by an attempt to increase Iran’s integration in the international community.[9]

Attitudes towards internal Iranian politics were also evident in the comparisons Iranian users drew between Trump and former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Both were depicted as populist, extroverted politicians who were elected despite a lack of support from the political establishment and traditional leaders. The comparison between the two leaders produced many cynical responses. For example, one user tweeted, “Our only option is to export our jokes about Ahmadinejad to the US, so they can use them to pass the next eight years.”[10]

The results of the US presidential elections sparked a variety of responses in Iran, ranging from restraint, expressions of concern about the future, and even satisfaction with the results. The lively, witty, and sharp discourse that developed on SNS testifies to users’ high level of awareness. They expressed not only familiarity with the potential impact of the results of US policy towards Tehran, but also attempted to apply conclusions derived from the US results onto the Iranian political system.