eyes on the U.S.

Inside Iran, Biden's Election Is Cause For Both Hope And Fear

Donald Trump's departure renews the possibility of talks between Washington and Tehran. But the Iranian leadership has reasons to be wary of the incoming administration in Washington.

During an anti US demonstration in Tehran, Iran in January 2020
During an anti US demonstration in Tehran, Iran in January 2020
Hamed Mohammadi

How does Iran feel about Joe Biden's victory in the recent U.S. presidential election? Depends on when you ask.

On Nov. 3, the day of the election, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told the American broadcaster CBS that Iran sees no difference between the sitting president of the United States, Donald Trump, and his Democrat rival. But just three days later, speaking to Venezuela's TeleSUR, the Islamic Republic's top diplomat told a different story: there's "clearly" a difference between the two, he said.

The shift may indicate divided opinions inside the Iranian state on the subject of talking to the Biden administration.

Iranian officials and media are acting as if Biden's election is a certainty, in spite of Trump's legal challenges. As a result, negotiations with the United States are receiving more serious attention in Tehran, and reformists, among others, will likely up their pressures on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and others who oppose to engaging Washington with talks.

In any case, all sides seem to agree that a change of administration may soften Iran's current refusal to negotiate.

President Hassan Rouhani, for his part, has said that the Biden administration would soon have an opportunity to rectify his country's mistakes and resume the path of respect for international norms. And government spokesman Ali Rabii wrote in an item entitled The White House's Occupant in January that "we are not indifferent to potential differences between the two American presidents," and that Washington could resume a "sensible" path.

While Leader Khamenei has reiterated the Islamic Republic's refusal to talk, he clarified in November 2019 that "negotiating with America is useless because they won't make concessions." That could mean that concessions might open the path to talks.

Either way, it's clear that officials and state media are happy to see Trump depart. What remains to be seen, of course, is what policies the new administration will adopt toward the regime, and whether that will open up new opportunities for Tehran.

Obama 2.0?

In the daily Aftab-e Yazd, parliamentarian Jalal Sadatian, the regime's former ambassador in London, cautioned Iran not to confuse Biden with his former boss, Barack Obama. The president-elect, he wrote, is likely to be less flexible with Iran. And so, rather than wait for relief that may not arrive, the Iranian government needs to take it upon itself to improve the country's difficult economic conditions, Sadatian argued.

The lawmaker went on to say that officials shouldn't wait until January. "By then we will have lost an important opportunity," Sadatian wrote. "Iran must clarify its plan before Biden's team is formed, so it can win suitable concessions in future talks."

His words may be directed at the Supreme Leader, as the man who must decide on talks.

Trump's unilateral sanctions policy has proved costly to the regime. And while Biden has mentioned reviving the 2015 Nuclear Pact that Obama helped broker, questions remain: Who in Iran will become his interlocutors? Will the regime allow the Rowhani-Zarif team to repeat the pact, in spite of its failure? Or is Khamenei waiting for a "revolutionary" administration after Iranian presidential elections scheduled for 2021?

Talks may heighten divisions within the regime.

Talks with America may heighten divisions within the regime, especially if a military or militaristic administration takes office in Tehran. It seems unlikely, however, that talks will make much progress if hardliners win the presidency and Biden insists on a nuclear deal that curbs Iranian ballistic activities.

Outside Iran, some regime opponents consider Biden an opportunity.

Activist Nima Rashedan told the broadcaster Radio Farda that even if Trump had won the votes, he wasn't likely to change his policy toward Iran and/or form a direct front against Iran. Rashedan believes that Trump wanted a better deal than the nuclear pact, and had no ideological posture on the need for regime change, as evidenced by the fact that he had significant contact with exiled opponents.

At a demonstration in The Hague against crimes perpetrated in Iraq by the U.S. — Photo: Utrecht Robin/Abaca/ZUMA

Meeting "alternative forces' would be the first step for anyone envisaging regime change, the activist explained. "But Trump did not do this, and in fact, the U.S. State Department boycotted Iran's opposition and merely shifted the Middle East balance of power against Iran," he said. Rashedan also said that it's not clear yet whether Biden will emulate Obama or adopt a more "traditional" Democratic approach, "which is much closer to Israel and human rights activists."

Rashedan said Iranian officials are far more suspicious of the Democrats than of Republicans, fearing a bid to replicate in Iran the 1988-89 collapse of the communist states. For that reason "they have repeatedly warned about networks and infiltrations," he explained. "Under Trump, the level of hostility between Iran and America was such that it barred the way to infiltration and network-building."

When Iranian officials mention infiltration, they point to people like the Iranian-American Siamak Namazi, along with a number of jailed environmentalists. "This is the model implemented in the Obama administration, with open doors and people coming and going," Rashedan said. "The Islamic Republic was concerned about this policy. I think if Biden wants to take this path, the Islamic Republic will be even more worried, given its experience with the Obama administration."

Exiled dissidents like Rashedan have, in any case, been adjusting their plans around a changed administration. One prominent opponent, Iran's exiled heir apparent, Prince Reza Pahlavi, has told this newspaper that he doesn't see the need for any talks with a foreign power to change the regime. "The important thing is the people's will," Pahlavi said.

It is unlikely the opposition will be able to get close to Biden.

There's already a desire within Iran, in other words, to change the regime, and what foreign powers should do, he added, is simply back that will.

Another activist, Shervan Fashandi, tells Kayhan London that Biden's foreign policy team had "already made some agreements' with officials like Foreign Minister Zarif or lobby groups acting on Iran's behalf.

"We know Zarif is close to the Democrats," he said. "I think it is unlikely the opposition will be able to get close to Biden and make particular changes to his policy on Iran. But you can pressure him, for example through news and information, or letters warning about the realities of Iran."

It would be "more useful" to approach Congress and "especially the Senate," where the Republicans may retain a majority, Fashandi added.

"Experience shows that when the Republicans hold a Senate majority, even without a Republican administration, they have stronger motives for listening to the opposition," he said. "The American government's official agreements have no validity without Senate ratification."

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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