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?

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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. Ms Hunter. Your conclusions are very accurate and to the point, if the Iranian leader will listen to these points however is another story in itself. Despite what we all hear from the opposition both inside and outside of the country , I think the Iranian leaders are quite smart and wise in dealing with the problem facing the nation . They are very concern about the well being of the nation ,if for nothing else but their own survival. System with all of its shortfalls has offered its citizens what very few country in the region has offered and that is Parlementary democracy “Shi’a style”.
    We should not forget that Iranian started a real reveloution in 1979, very few reveloution in the world has survived without some sort of “ideology” . Iranian reveloution ideology for better or worst is “shiaism” . Once you lose that Ideology , your reveloution fails (Egypt)

  2. “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.”

    Yes, this is the first and the core message. But what about people like the author? Should they work in the same direction that creates wars around which claims lives of people like them or they could work toward a lasting reasonable, scientific and worldwide peace?
    The author’s words is in fact paving the way for a continiuation of a muscle-based world management system which is based by dinosaurs which were extinct 65 my ago due to low investment on their brains. Why the same is not going to happen for US or any other muscular-based power? What about our stance as honorable wise humans. Should we take the same side with dinosaurs?

  3. Over the past 39 years numerous Iranians have made proposals similar to those of Shirin Hunter to their rulers and urged them to reconsider their ways in the interest of national solidarity and economic development. Virtually all of these critics have lost their jobs, suppressed to silence, ended up in jail or in exile. I hope Ms. Hunter is not planning to visit her motherland.

    Mansour Farhang.

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