How Iran Should Respond to Trump’s Withdrawal from Iran Nuclear Deal

Hassan Rouhani

by Shireen T. Hunter

The day that everyone was dreading arrived yesterday when President Trump announced that the United States will no longer adhere to the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA). Before and after his announcement various commentators have discussed the implications of his decision for America’s position in the world, its relations with Europe and the risks of greater turmoil in the Middle East.

These are all serious issues. However, few have discussed how this decision would affect Iran, and how Iran should react. The main concern has been the possibility of Iran resuming its high-grade enrichment process and possibly surreptitiously working on a nuclear device.

Clearly, President Trump’s action is both unfair and unwise. Be that as it may, his decision forces the Iranian leadership, especially the more hardline elements, to confront tough realities of international life and domestic conditions that they have consistently and adamantly refused to acknowledge. Yet they need to know these facts. Commentators who pretend that these realities don’t exist are not doing Iran any favors.

First and most important, international relations are still based on power equations rather than rule of law or ethical principles. Complaining about this reality, as Iran does consistently, does it no good.

Second, in the post-ideological era, most states, except for the Islamic Republic of Iran, act on the basis of their national interests and not in pursuit of some vague ideals. This means that other parties to the JCPOA will determine their approach to Iran based on calculations of their economic and other interests. Since Europe’s and China’s interests are more tied to America than to Iran, they will not go out of their way to help Iran. Even Russia, facing its own domestic problems, will not come to Iran’s aid.

Third, within the current international system, America is still the dominant power economically and militarily. Iran hardliners’ belief that America is on the verge of collapse is nothing but a fantasy.

Fourth, Israel has tremendous influence on America for many reasons, including the memory of World War II and the crimes against the Jews of Europe. Thus, Iranian expectation that it can make a deal with America and continue to challenge Israel’s existence and engage in activities that seem threatening to it is foolhardy. This factor also puts a limit on European willingness to engage with Iran. Accusations of sponsoring terrorism and destabilizing regional activities are largely about Iran’s hostility to Israel. No matter how much Iran fights the Islamic State or other extremist groups, it will get no credit if it continues its animosity to Israel.

Fifth, the mismanagement of Iran’s economic and other affairs has left the country in a difficult position and with a frustrated and unhappy population. Despite brave words from the government that all necessary measures have been taken and the people should not worry about their economic conditions, the return of sanctions, including those on the purchase of Iranian oil, will seriously worsen conditions inside the country. Certainly, Iran can go back to bartering and other such measures and stop even its modest development plans. But this will only worsen its situation.

More seriously, economic deprivation and a stifling social atmosphere coupled with environmental problems have been eroding Iran’s national solidarity, with worrying consequences for the country’s future.

Those who wish Iran well should point out these realities instead of focusing on America’s lost prestige, credibility, and isolation.

How Should Iran Respond?

President Hassan Rouhani has so far reacted wisely. Instead of declaring that Iran is leaving the JCPOA (or worse, as some have suggested, the NPT), he said that Iran will remain in the agreement as long as the other five states stay in it.

However, he will come under pressure from hardliners to take a more combative approach. That would be wrong. Instead, he should point out the dangers of the policies promoted by the hardliners and ask for fundamental reforms in Iran’s domestic and foreign policies.

An easy step domestically would be to relax the social and cultural codes, eliminate forced hijab, and allow concerts and other amusements. Annually, Iranians spend billions of dollars to go places such as Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Turkey, in addition to Europe and Asia, just to enjoy a freer atmosphere even if for a few days. Some seek residency in these places and invest in them instead of in their own country. This is costing Iran heavily in monetary terms.

Meanwhile, Iran’s tourism industry is languishing partly because of these restrictions. Yet, a minority of aged clerics and hardline revolutionaries insist on maintaining this stifling atmosphere. In short, the cost of maintaining an Islamist society is becoming prohibitive for Iran.

Improving Iranians’ mood will help the country’s economy, enhance national solidarity, and even strengthen their will to resist unfair treatment.

Another step would be better treatment of overseas Iranians with considerable funds. As long as Iranian residents abroad get imprisoned as soon as they return to their country, any hope of their investing in Iran is nil. Ironically, it has been almost 30 years since Ayatollah Rafsanjani talked about national reconciliation and reached out to overseas Iranians.

More important, the leadership in Iran, especially the hardliners, must realize that the system’s contradictions are intensifying and can no longer be sustained. In a book on post-Khomeini Iran in 1992, I wrote that the Islamic Republic has two choices; fundamental reform that will alter its nature or a dangerous stagnation and even implosion. Now time is running out for reform, although it is still possible.

Dealing with America

Iran must realize that for the foreseeable future it cannot circumvent America. Thus, it must deal with it openly and realistically. This does not mean trusting in America’s good intentions, good will, or reliability. It is merely an acknowledgement of reality.

Dealing with America also means dealing with Israel as an independent state recognized by the United Nations. American withdrawal from the JCPOA has shown that normalization of ties with America requires coming to terms with Israel. An Israeli academic at a conference on Iran-America relations in 1993, once told me that the road to Washington goes through Tel Aviv.

For all this to be possible, Iran must develop a national rather than an Islamist outlook and put Iran’s interests ahead of Islamic universalism, anti-imperialist struggle, and Palestine’s liberation. Forty years of lost efforts, hundreds of thousands dead Iranians, and billions of wasted dollars are enough.

Will Iran’s leaders have the courage to act as Iranians rather than as tired Islamists and revolutionaries?

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. “How Should Iran Respond? ….An easy step domestically would be to relax the social and cultural codes, eliminate forced hijab, and allow concerts and other amusements. . .
    Dear Ms. Hunter, If Islamic so-Called Republic of Iran eliminates hijab and their barbaric Islamic codes, etc., that would be the end of this regime. Please note, one of the leaders (and presidents) of the Islamic system i.e., Rafsanjani once said, “we don’t make the mistakes that Shah made,” referring to giving in to people’s wishes during the 1978-79 revolution era. The same Rafsanjani once said, we can destroy the entire Israel with one atomic bomb. You are dealing with a system that has one mission: making Shiasm the worldwide religion at any cost. That is why Ayatollah Khomeini always used the phrase “Ommat Islam” (as the worldwide population of Shia Moslems) instead of using the phrase “Iranian people” or “Mellat Iran”. They are not concern about the well-being of Iran or the Iranian people only the spread of their Shiasm.
    While the media is too busy bashing Trump and whatever he is doing; millions of Iranians are suffering under one of the worst Islamic dictatorship that world have ever experienced. Presenting hijab-related issues as potential temporary pain killer clearly shows a mentality that is trying to save the system without any regards for its fascist nature. Please note, based on IRI constitution, a woman is considered as a half a person. i.e., you are (respectfully) considered as a half a person. This is how 40+ million Iranian women are treated under this oppressive system.
    Farhad Mafie

  2. I really can’t stop laughing. What happened to the researcher? please read the articles you wrote yourself, prior to the JCPOA. That I think will be helpful miss Hunter. what you are saying is :Everyone should bow down to Israel, no matter what ,if they want their rights. Honor doesn’t get you anywhere, so leave it for now, and who cares about international law or UN Charter?
    Your proposals are far from realities on the ground. At least read the articles in this blog before telling the Iranians to bend to the likes of Trump and Netanyahu.

  3. @ “Accusations of sponsoring terrorism and destabilizing regional activities are largely about Iran’s hostility to Israel. No matter how much Iran fights the Islamic State or other extremist groups, it will get no credit if it continues its animosity to Israel. … American withdrawal from the JCPOA has shown that normalization of ties with America requires coming to terms with Israel.”

    There’s quite a bit of myopia there. Israel has for years attempted to persuade the U.S. to wage war against Iran. It appears that Israel may get its wish soon. For example, John Bolton in a speech to MEK recently said that the “regime” in Iran will be toppled “before 2019.” Moreover, Israel’s leadership needs an existential threat to maintain power and has chosen Iran as its enemy.

    So the first sentence quoted above has it backwards. It is Israel’s hostility to Iran that has spawned the accusations, not vice versa. And nothing short of Iran’s complete capitulation to Israel’s rule would remove that threat, in my opinion.

    At the same time, Israel has (deservedly) become a pariah nation in a downward spiraling, losing battle against the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Israel is rapidly losing public support in the U.S. It is only Israeli control of the U.S. Congress that is delaying Israeli apartheid (and its government) from going the way of South Africa’s. And that Congressional support has an end of life date that is rapidly approaching.

    I don’t see Iran’s leaders as having much choice other than to endure until that date arrives.

  4. It looks like Iran is upholding the JCPOA with the other signatories which is a wise and mature move. This includes abiding by the enhanced inspection protocol and draconian limits on their nuclear program through 2030 but they may relax portions of that, only time will tell.

    What else should Iran do?
    They should declare the conventional arms importation ban null and void and start buying advanced Jet fighters and other such equipment from Russia including hypersonic missiles, whatever they can get. It is imperative that they not allow Trump to say, ‘see, no consequences, we still get Iran’s compliance and get to impose sanctions’. You have to stand up to the schoolyard bully.

  5. to summarize, Iran should give up its Islamic culture and state , become secular, stop critisizing Israeli apartheid and occupation, and bring in the IMF and globalist banks, oil companies , and introduce same sex marriage and abortion rights possibly under a new Shah and and SAVAK to deal with the religious extremists ie total unconditional surrender

    nice analysis there

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