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. this article actually made me sick to my stomach
    the author has a defeatist approach and assumes that everyone will toes washington s line no wonder she omits mentioning reactions by UN and EU leaders or russia s strong denunciation. She also fails to mention the supreme leader s firm ultimatum to EU3. iran s resistance and will to fight back is foreign to this author and her suggestions on how to respond are one dimensional and ill suited to iran s needs today. what a waste of time to spend reading this nonsense

  2. Iran should learn from NK. The best response is to build nukes and then negotiate

  3. In the interim and for an immediate response though Iran should purchase a few from the NK stockpile, have one tested at the same time deactivate and begin their own fast pace enrichment program. Ultimately build their own weapons, test it, and then make an announcement that they are ready for negotiations!

  4. @ Mrs Hunter

    ‘The day that everyone was dreading’ – everyone?! Kind of catchphrases used by the western media that within a week elevated the attention seeking Trump to the level of Caesar! Iran had 8 years of bloody war and sanctions but no one ever dreaded America. Living outside Iran you have lost touch with our culture and spirit, Mrs Hunter.

    I agree, there is hardly any ‘ethical principle’ in international politics. Trump selling over $100 billion of arms to Saudi and Britain sold over $91 billion recently, while the HRW has been reminding the world of the Saudi war crimes in Yemen! But just because everyone is selling himself to the Devil it is not advisable after almost 40 years of suffering – it is just cultural, you know, we call it ‘integrity’, it is hardly used these days in English language in the West.

    You rightly point to several pressing issues, but then avoid digging into. To justify violently repressing the Yemenis, the West’s unelected repressive Arab allies have no options but to label Iran as instigator of crisis there; the same in Bahrain and in Palestine. To justify decades of Western domination of the M.E. as well as the Israeli incursions in Syria and Lebanon again they need to blame Iran’s presence in those regions, as a ‘fanatic’ force destabilising the world, their world – the regions that the West had dominated! See, labelling has become a Western art! Iran has been destabilising Iraq and Syria, they say. Had Iran hesitated, by now you would be receiving reports of Daesh and other western backed freedom fighters and rebels occupying not just Iraq and Syria and part of Turkey but half of Iran – yes this is safeguarding our ‘national interest’ Mrs. Hunter: and this is exactly the national interest the Israelis, Arabs and Americans did not wish us to have. If the adjective ‘destabilising’ cannot be effective enough then, as you have kindly reminded us, into the focus comes the Iranian ‘hardliner’s belief’, then the Israeli and American military invasion of Syria or attacks on Yemen and Bahrain and Palestine and Lebanon are justified. You see, to justify the Western presence and domination of the region they need to divert the attention from what reminds them of their own image as Imperialists: and in no time we see the diversion from Imperialism to Religious Fanaticism!

    I agree with your 5th commandment, but sadly the official corruption and mismanagement have been with us at least for the last one or two centuries! And yes the issue of ‘national’ solidarity and the urgent need for constructive ‘reforms’ indeed are imperative, but with the constant threat of Israeli-American military attacks looming, soon we will be facing even tougher laws as any criticism will be regarded as instigation and collaboration with the enemy – thanks to the wisdom of the American politicians!

    Regarding improving the ‘Iranian’s mood’, that is a good prescription. But, national reconciliation and ‘overseas Iranians’? Well, as long as the Israeli and CIA continue to infiltrate the Iranians, not to mention movies like Argo, everyone can be a suspect especially the dual nationals and no one can expect reconciliation.

    ‘Reform or dangerous stagnation’? I assure you, as long as we are under the impending American-Israeli military attacks, it is unlikely to have any fundamental reform – again thanks to the warmongering American media and politicians.

    You so elegantly advise us to reconcile with Israel; that ‘the road to Washington goes through Tel Aviv’! You remind me of Netanyahu desperately shouting ‘Iran must recognise Israel!’ To have an Iranian academic to play the go-between is a blessing! We don’t really like a long distance, Ms Hunter, we prefer the short cut, but in fact we don’t even like going west; our collective memory is too painful, it has been at least since 1953.

    I full heartedly agree with your ‘anti-imperialist struggle’ and ‘Palestine’s liberation’ being poisonous; I have no doubt that Mr Trump and Netanyahu would also agree with you. You often sound like the Pieds-Noirs writers during the Algerian Revolution, but your last sentence reminds me of Niall Ferguson. Thanks for your enlightening article.

  5. Dr Hunter needs to come to terms with a reality herself. That reality is that the West, with the US foremost amongst them, would only accept an Iran that is completely “moribund” (to borrow Dr Hunter’s own words).

    Dr Hunter periodically does manage to come to that conclusion (which is why I still bother reading her work). But after finding the implication of such a reality too scary and depressing to contemplate she retreats back to hectoring Iran for not doing some more sucking up to the West.

    Iran’s bombast against Israel indeed appears silly but that is not the real cause for Washington’s animus against her. Iran is in US’ way of complete domination of the Middle East. The West will not tolerate any state in the Middle East that can potentially challenge their monopoly in that region, period! Do you not see them even threatening hostility with a secular NATO member Turkey? Why is it Europhile Iranians can’t accept this?! You lot seem even more pigheaded and resistant to uncomfortable truths than those “hardline mullahs” you so love to chastise.

    The implication of the above reality means Iran needs to give up hope for any meaningful economic cooperation with the West. Iran’s only choice is to pursue autarky to the extent possible as advocated by her Supreme Leader and cooperate with the non Western economies when possible. Such a course for any nation is very hard but Iranians need to come to terms with the reality that that is the only way forward. Failure to do so would only leaves Iran more vulnerable to additional sanctions and invites economic aggression from the West.

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