Iran Needs a National and Realistic Foreign Policy

by Shireen Hunter

The worsening relations between the United States and Iran since the election of Donald Trump reached a fever pitch with the president’s speech at the UN General Assembly and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s response to it.

President Trump’s harsh speech included a range of accusations against Iran. Most of these accusations were either unfounded or only partially true. President Rouhani for his part did not mince words and declared President Trump’s speech unworthy of the UNGA. Other Iranian politicians and commentators were much less polite in characterizing Trump’s speech.

Trump’s approach towards Iran has been unwise, imprudent, and counterproductive, beginning with his frequent hints that Iran has not abided by the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The Trump administration has also made continual threats to withdraw from the JCPOA, has imposed new sanctions on Iran, and has even hinted at possible military action against the country.

These policies have increased the risk of a full-scale conflict between Iran and America, whether by accident or by design, with heavy costs for both sides. The US would not likely emerge unscathed from such a conflict, but the biggest loser would be Iran. In fact, should it occur, a military confrontation with the US could set in motion dynamics that could threaten Iran’s territorial integrity and its survival within its current borders. The experience of Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and even Syria serve as warning to the Iranian leadership about what could happen to their own country.

Therefore, it is up to the Iranian leadership, especially Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to avert such a potential disaster. To do so, Iran needs to adopt a nationally focused and realistic, instead of ideological and Islamist, foreign policy.

What Iran Must Change

After taking a hard and realistic look at the country’s assets and liabilities and economic and military capabilities, Iran must develop a vision of its regional and international roles and functions that’s commensurate with its capabilities. Thus far, Iran’s exaggeration of its power has only enabled its enemies and competitors to generate international opposition to it.

In particular, the Iranian leadership must rid itself of the illusion that a spirit of Ashouraei—referring to Hussein’s martyrdom 1,400 years ago—can compensate for the lack of modern weaponry, especially adequate air force, air defense systems, and naval power. The Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) seems to believe that it can engage the United States in a long and debilitating war by resorting to asymmetrical warfare. But such a war will also exhaust Iran and exacerbate its many problems.

Moreover, the idea that Iran should confront America in the Middle East and beyond, especially on issues that do not relate to its own immediate security and other national interests, defies reason and prudence. So far, this policy has only resulted in Iran essentially paying tribute to even its smallest neighbors. All of them, from Pakistan to Turkmenistan, have used Iran’s problems with America to extract concessions from Tehran. Oddly enough, the same Iranian leadership that considers talking to America below Iran’s national dignity remained silent when Turkey’s president openly insulted Iran and Iranians, and the Saudi monarch called Iran a snake whose head should be cut off.

The Iranian leadership must prioritize Iran’s survival over any other ideological goals, such as liberating Palestine and Jerusalem or fighting international imperialism. In other words, they must act as the leaders of a nation, not a universalist revolution or a crusade for a cause. Most, if not all, of Iran’s problems have resulted from this ideological aspect of its behavior and the lack of sufficient commitment to Iran’s national interests. They have persisted in this behavior even though they have paid a heavy price for it. Ironically, this ideological behavior has been limited to the Palestinian issue and Israel. In other regions, from Afghanistan to the Caucasus, Iran has essentially followed a non-ideological approach.

But because of the centrality of the Palestinian issue in Middle East politics, Iran’s ideological approach has cost it much. For example, despite spending money and sacrificing Iran’s interests for the sake of Palestine and earning Israel’s fierce enmity, Iran’s leaders have never been able to count on Palestinian groups in a pinch. Now Iran risks becoming the sacrificial lamb at an Arab-Israeli feast. Yet, the Iranian leadership seems oblivious to these facts and risks.

In Syria, after having lost men and money, Iran is making sacrifices that ultimately benefit Russia. In Iraq, as a thank you for sheltering him, Shia leader Muqtada Sadr now pays court to Saudi Arabia. Another prominent Shia leader, Amar Hakim, whose father lived for years in exile in Iran, is also wooing the Saudis and other Arabs. The Iraqi government, meanwhile, puts up all sorts of barriers to Iran’s economic and cultural interaction with the country and shows no flexibility on issues such as the dispute over navigation rights around Shat al Arab. This is not surprising: the Iraqi government and Iraqi activists are acting as nationalists while the mindset of Iran’s leadership is Islamist, with Iran being only a useful instrument for advancing Islamist goals.

Iran cannot expect normal relations with the world while ignoring one of the most influential global players, the United State. It doesn’t matter that Iran has pursued a more pragmatic and constructive approach in other parts of the globe. By going against international consensus on issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict or the survival of Israel, Iran has gained little from its good behavior elsewhere. In fact, the single most important cause of the US-Iran dispute is the latter’s attitude toward Israel.

Finally, Iran must realize that it cannot expect others, be it Europe, Russia, or China, to look after its interests. Only its leaders can do so provided that they put Iran and its interests ahead of some vague, unattainable Islamist and revolutionary objectives.

Clock Is Ticking

There is not much time left for Iran to change course. The last four decades have been lost years for Iran in terms of economic development. A country that was at the point of takeoff in 1979 now is behind many Asian and neighboring states, such as Turkey. Its best and the brightest are leaving whenever they get a chance and are enriching other countries.

In short, regardless of whether US remains in the JCPOA and/or adds new sanctions, Iran faces severe existential challenges, largely because of the ideological and Islamist character of its leadership. That includes problems caused by environmental degradation. Iran’s resistance to asking advice from foreign experts has led to faulty engineering and other planning errors that have exacerbated its environmental problems, especially the shortage of water.

These problems and challenges, at home and abroad, will continue to mount as long as the Iranian leadership does not put Iran first and acts in a realistic fashion and in accordance with its capabilities and limitations. Iran cannot expect global cooperation even as it challenges the international system and its key actors.

Photo: Ayatollah Khamenei pins a medal on Sardar Ali Fadavi, commander of the Revolutionary Guard navy.

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. Iran is doing fine with the limited resources it has. It has been engaged with many nations, led the word-wide Non-Aligned Movement, agreed to a baseless stifling of its nuclear program, is getting all sorts of investment and credit offers, and has achieved a paramount position in the Middle East thanks to the US “Iraqi Freedom” war and the current defeat of US/Israel in Syria. Looks pretty good to me, and so there’s no need to change anything, and especially not to kowtow to the U.S. with all its mistakes.

  2. Thanks for that interesting post . This analysis is reasonable , and even wise I must admit , yet , not sufficient !! And why ??

    This is because , it is too objective ( or at least pseudo objective ) but does ignore the subjective ( and pseudo objective ) perception of the Iranians themselves . And what is it that perception ?? Well , for them , whatsoever , the US , is seeking to take down the Islamic Republic of Iran . The conflict has to do rather , with fundamental dialectical approaches , between the US and its allies , and The Islam in gross modo ( generally speaking ) . And how shall they prove it to you ?? well :

    Here we have the JCPOA , and they stick to it , fully complying with it , and yet , the US , persists with its hostile approach . We could go back , from their point of view , to Iran – Iraq war , incited by the US according to them. They would even , suggest , that invading Iraq, for nothing in fact ( surely not for mass destruction weapon ) is a clear proof , that the US , is seeking to disintegrate and destabilize ,and harm the Islamic world ( creating so the IS for example ) . So , their revolutionary action , is only the supporting Ideology , for a given reality imposed on them anyway whatsoever according to them .

    But , Is it objectively so also ?? Well , we won’t stay young no more ….


  3. I understand the plan, but it really is infuriating that the world’s biggest bully, the USA, is allowed to get away with policies that do not even help the people of the USA, let alone the rest of us, yet Iran, which has done no real harm, is blamed and scolded. What parts of Trump’s disgraceful words on Iran were “partly true”??? Why can the USA refuse to keep to its agreement on the JCPOA? Why is Israel so closely allied to the USA, recklessly supporting the extreme lies of Trump, yet nobody of the “allies” dares speak?

  4. I think this is the first LobeLog posting that brought me to laughter, but then to dismay. She gets good points for bringing into the discussion ‘full-scale conflict between Iran and America’ — that is the objective, really.
    But can you believe writing ‘The US would not likely emerge unscathed from such a conflict’!
    It would be a blood bath that rivaled or maybe exceeded the US disaster in Vietnam. Loss of American lives would be felt in every village, town and city of America. And the President who was responsible for that loss of American lives would have an early end to his political career.
    Shirleen, talk to some military people about your dream of a US ground war in Iran. And listen to what they tell you.

  5. The author’s reductionist approach fails to consider other elements that make realization of her sound advice infeasible. In an ideal world the author’s advice may sound rational, that the Iranian leadership should focus on Iran’s domestic problems and keep off the map of the world, but that is sustainable only when integrity of all nations are ‘equally’ respected, and no master planners or armies or criminal apartheid regime would savagely invade to appropriate territories or natural resources of weaker nations or plot to overthrow legitimate governments.

    The author should have at least asked herself why of so many undemocratic Arab countries Syria has been dragged into blood and fire; what murderous regimes would benefit from Syria’s suffering and fracture and what had been their next plans for Iran. The author sounds more of a broker speaking for the Israeli politicians, practicing tactics of divide and rule, Arabs versus Persians, though partly true, and that the Middle East should be regarded as the dominion of the American forces – hence, politics is for the grownups, you kids get on with your homework!

    The author’s warnings remind me of the pied-noir analysts in the late 1950s and early 1960s, warning the Algerians of pending economic hardship if they rise against their French colonizers or demand independence. But no military power could save the French’s vicious colonialism – the downfall of the French and British Empire should be remembered. We have entered a new phase, Ms. Hunter: the world is not always defined by self-appointed armed masters but by the very people whose genuine devotion and sacrifice eventually shape their world and define it accordingly.

    We may make mistakes but as a people we shall continue to make progress and may remain the only source of legitimacy that would reject the dehumanizing American foreign policies that have inflicted death and unprecedented immense suffering on millions of defenseless families in the Middle East.

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