Even If US Doesn’t Exit Iran Nuclear Deal, Risk of War Remains

U.S. Black Hawk helicopter over Baghdad (Wikimedia Commons)

by Shireen T. Hunter        

When the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany signed a deal that effectively prevents Iran from developing nuclear weapons, those in Iran and in other signatory states who did not want to see another war erupt in the Middle East sighed with relief.

This sense of relief was short-lived. When Donald Trump became president, anxieties about a potential war with Iran reemerged. Now with the appointment of two hardline figures who believe in the use of force against Iran, possibly as a prelude to regime change—Mike Pompeo to the position of secretary of state and John Bolton to national security adviser—the risk of war has risen substantially.

Those who anxiously follow the evolution of the Trump administration’s Iran policy are looking to its decision on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) this May. If the U.S. decides to exit the agreement, they believe it would indicate that the administration is moving much closer to a possible military confrontation with Iran. By contrast, if the U.S. remains within the Iran nuclear deal, America will continue for the time being its current policy of containment to weaken the Iranian government in the hope that Iranians themselves will engineer a regime change.

However, those who do not want another Middle East war should not grow complaisant should America stay in the JCPOA. Iran’s nuclear program, although a major issue, was not the real cause of its troubles with the United States or Europe. The nuclear issue was the symptom of a much bigger malady, and the post-JCPOA developments support this contention.

As soon as the deal was signed, hawks in America and hardliners in Iran tried to undermine it. Very shortly after the signing of the agreement, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps tested a new missile, thus showing its anger at Iranian moderates who had negotiated the deal as well as thumbing its nose at the Obama administration. Then there was the case of the American sailors who strayed into Iranian territorial waters. They were captured, handcuffed. and displayed in the media, which was not exactly the action of countries trying to reconcile.

Meanwhile, the United States was very slow in providing the sanctions relief that the deal had promised and was not very forceful in encouraging economic and financial dealings with Iran. And, of course, U.S. hardliners vastly exaggerated the benefits that Iran was drawing from the deal, focusing instead on Iran’s missiles and its so-called destructive behavior in the Middle East.

The real issue, therefore, is not the symptoms of Iran’s problems with the United States and its regional allies, be they nuclear capacity, missiles, or vague insinuations about destabilizing behavior. The real issue is the challenge that Iran’s very existence, irrespective of the nature of its regime, poses to great powers, especially the United States and its regional allies.

What To Do with Iran?

The issue of what to with Iran goes back to the nineteenth century and the British domination of the Persian Gulf and India. Britain did not consider Iran worthy of colonization. But the country was too close to India, and it bordered the Persian Gulf. In short, it was on the way to India. Hence it could not be ceded to competing European powers such as the Russian Czars or continental potentates like Napoleon Bonaparte.

Thus, the British decided to nibble on Iran’s frontiers, especially in the east bordering Afghanistan in what is now Pakistan. The separation of Herat from Iran in 1856-7 occurred because of British intervention. In the Persian Gulf the same policy was applied.

In the north, the Russians pursued a similar policy and acquired Iran’s trans-Caucasian territories. By 1907, Britain and Russia had decided to divide Iran between themselves, However, the 1917 Bolshevik revolution prevented this scheme from being realized. Meanwhile, both powers prevented Iran’s development lest its results benefit their rival. Their opposition to building railroads in Iran is a good illustration.

After the Bolshevik revolution, faced with a new threat, Britain concluded that it was better to keep Iran whole as a buffer. Therefore, it helped Iran consolidate its central government and subdue rebellious tribes. But by the late 1930s, Iran got ambitious and wanted independence and a better deal on oil. Therefore, after the allied invasion, the ruling monarch was deposed and his 22-year-old son was put on the throne.

The Cold War bought Iran another 30 years of precarious independence. But the United States, which had replaced Britain as the dominant power, was equally ambivalent about Iran. It never fully supported Iran as it did Turkey or Saudi Arabia. Its approach towards Iran was a combination of neglect or dangerous experimentation. John F. Kennedy’s administration forced reforms on Iran that contributed to the Islamic revolution two decades later.

By the 1970s, however, America was fed up with the Shah and his ambitions and pretensions. Thus, the Carter administration experimented with regime change, which served as a catalyst for the Islamic revolution. While the USSR existed, the idea of an attack on Iran was not in play. After the Soviet collapse, America saw a chance to establish its global hegemony and reshape the world, especially the Middle East.

Post-Cold War US Policy

The George W. Bush administration shifted U.S. policy in the Middle East in the direction of more robust, military approaches. The 2003 Iraq invasion was the first step, which was to be followed by attacks on Iran, Syria, and Libya. The U.S. and allies attacked Libya in 2011. Syria thus far has escaped a full-scale attack, but the West, including the United States, has supported its rebellious groups. Iran risked being attacked several times but somehow was spared.

Since Syria as a viable country no longer exists, the remaining country on the elimination list is Iran. As one US official instrumental in the Iraq War decision told me in answer to my question at a conference in 1988 just after the Iran-Iraq cease fire, U.S. has unfinished business with Iran.

The goal of U.S. regime-change policy toward Iran is to cripple it economically and militarily—and possibly partition it like Syria—with the Mojahedin-e Khalq as the group to effect that change. Although this is no easy task, if Iran becomes mired in a civil war as a result of a military strike promoted and aided by its neighbors, it will be out of the Middle East power equation.

If Iran escapes this worst-case scenario, the United States and the regional countries must decide what kind of Iran they can live with. For better or for worse, Iran is part of the region. Constantly denying its legitimate interest in regional affairs, either by accusing it of imperial ambitions or Islamist expansionism, will not solve the problem. Attacking it will open a can of worms and cause much damage all round. A policy of accommodation through talks and security-building measures is the better way to handle the Iran issue. Needless to say, Iran must do its share by abandoning the worst aspects of its ideology and the policies driven by it. If it does so, Iran can become a constructive and important player in the region and also secure its vital interests.

Note: An earlier version of this piece misstated the year of the attack on Libya.

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. The Brits indeed tried to colonize Iran following the exploration and discovery of the black gold in Masjed Soleiman by William Knox Darcy but eventually failed to do so! The discovery of oil was ensued by the formation of British/Iran Consortium which were sharing the revenues by 90/10%. This lasted until 1953 when the democratically elected PM ,Dr Mossadegh, took Brittain to the international Court where in the Brits lost their control of the Cosortium! Eventually the Britts got kicked out of Iran without achieving their goal causing them to get mad and asked for help from the CIA for deposing the PM in Iran and installing their puppet M Pahlavi as the Shah of Iran! The Iranians haven’t forgotten about that and they will do anything to makeup for being betrayed!

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