Iran Should Be Worried About a Trump Administration

by Shireen T. Hunter

Those observers in Iran who thought that a victory by Donald Trump in the US presidential race would be in Iran’s interests should by now have realized how wrong they were. It’s not just because President-elect Trump vowed during the election campaign that he would tear up the Joint Comprehensive Plan of action (JCPOA). More importantly, he has made key appointments that will have significant consequences for the future direction of American foreign policy.

The president-elect has appointed retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn to the post of national security adviser, K.T. McFarland as deputy national security advisor, and Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. They all have one thing in common: they loathe Iran. Equally of consequence will be the choices that Trump makes for the positions of secretary of state and defense. Currently, retired Marine General James Mattis is the frontrunner for the post of secretary of defense. He is well known for his bleak assessment of Iran’s role as a troublemaker at the root of all problems in the Middle East, a country that is inherently belligerent and hostile to the United States. Two of the men mentioned for secretary of state, notably former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Senator Bob Corker, are also anti-Iran. Giuliani even seems to have a benign view of the Mujahedin e Khalq and their leader, Maryam Rajavi. Even a third candidate for this post, the 2012 Republican Party nominee for president, Mitt Romney, cannot be considered friendly to Iran.

In addition to Trump’s prior statements, all these appointments and would-be appointments herald a tough approach in America’s policy towards Iran in the coming year.

Beyond the JCPOA           

Even if the Trump administration does not tear up the nuclear deal, it could still make life difficult for Iran. One way would be through influencing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to become punctilious in judging Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA. The agency’s head, Yukio Amano, is no fan of Iran. Moreover, he is very much attuned to America’s wishes. Once he senses that the winds are shifting in Washington, he will likely adjust his sails accordingly. Harassed by the agency, Iran’s hardliners could push it to withdraw from the agreement. If statements by Iran’s supreme leader, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei, and by its Revolutionary Guard commanders are anything to go by, this is a distinct possibility. The leader has said that if the US tears up JCPOA, Iran will burn it. Obviously, in this event Iran would be the major loser, since the risk of a US military attack would once again become real.

Of course, Iran and the United States are not the only signatories to the JCPOA. Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany are as well. All are likely to remain loyal to the deal even if the United States were to withdraw. Nevertheless, the European financial and business community would grow even more wary of doing business with Iran than they are now, and there is not much that their respective governments could do to force banks and businesses to deal with Iran. This would be especially so if the United States reinforced strictures on foreign banks that have wanted to do business with Teheran. Moreover, in light of all the other issues on which the Europeans will have to deal with the Trump administration, ranging from trade to the future of NATO and US relations with Europe in general, it is unlikely that Europeans would seriously challenge America on Iran. Russia has its own issues to tackle with the US, and, as it has done in the past, it would probably leverage the Iran issue to gain concessions from America on other fronts, notably Ukraine and Syria. China is in a similar position.

The US might even embark on a policy of trying to destabilize Iran internally, by manipulating various discontents, including ethnic and religious minorities. Washington might even use the Mujahedin e Khalq, despite its lack of credibility among most Iranians.

Iran’s regional rivals and enemies have already been trying to gain President-elect Trump’s ear. Nearly all significant leaders have either talked to him or have sent him letters of congratulations, All, from Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, have expressed hopes that Trump will be more responsive to their fears and concerns, especially regarding Iran. Even Iraq’s prime minister, Haidar Al Ebadi, has been in contact with Trump. The presence of an anti-Iran administration in Washington will embolden Iran’s enemies in Iraq, which are not inconsiderable. While other Middle East leaders are scrambling to talk to the president-elect, Iran refuses to deal with America officially and openly, except on an ad hoc basis. This puts Iran in a far less favorable position than its Middle East rivals. In addition, despite their current financial difficulties, some Middle East states, notably those of the Persian Gulf, can reward America by making large military purchases.

What Should Iran Do?

First and foremost, if it is subjected to excessive scrutiny by the US and the IAEA, Iran should resist the temptation of adopting a defiant posture or reneging on the JCPOA. It should avoid provocative actions such as conducting further ballistic missiles tests or holding military exercises in the Persian Gulf. These actions could provide just the excuse that Iran hawks around President Trump might need to ramp-up anti-Iran measures. Iran should even avoid inflammatory rhetoric.

Second, Iran should not underestimate the risk of a US military strike. True, this could cause damage to some American interests, but the cost to Iran would be prohibitive. Despite the government’s continued cult of martyrdom, most Iranians are tired of war, sanctions, and isolation. America is not Iraq, and the Iran of today is not the one that fought the war with Iraq in the 1980s. That was a patriotic war, whatever the regime says. A substantial portion of Iranians would see an American attack as the result at least in part of reckless provocations by their own government.

Lastly, the Iranian leadership and especially the hardliners and Revolutionary Guards should realize that they can’t continue their contradictory foreign policy. They cannot gain respectability and integration in international society while also waging a so-called anti-imperialist and revolutionary policy. They cannot continue attacking the US and expecting it and its allies to help them revive the Iranian economy.

Politics are seldom fair, least of all international politics. But raging against the injustices of the international system and the big powers is not a well-formed foreign policy geared to enhancing the security and prosperity of Iran and its citizens. Time is running out for Iran to mend its ways and to adopt a national instead of a revolutionary foreign policy.

Photo: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif

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. A very good analysis and sound advice! Unfortunately, none of the candidates would have been good for Iran, but judging by all the early appointments the next US Administration will be the most hostile administration ever towards Iran. The trouble is that the extremists in Washington are matched by the extremists in Tehran, with the difference that the United States is a superpower, while Iran is a developing country just emerging out of a long period of sanctions leading to economic stagnation.

    Many Iranians should have realized by now that the Obama Administration provided a rare and indeed exceptional opportunity for the normalization of relations between the two countries. Unfortunately, Iranians led by the Supreme Leader did not take full advantage of that opportunity. Had relations developed further with diplomatic relations and economic integration, it would have been much more difficult to undo.

    Having said all that, the new US Administration should also realize that adopting a hostile policy towards Iran leading to military confrontation would not be as easy as they imagine and could prove to be even more disastrous that the invasion of Iraq, as well as being contrary to the President-elect’s repeated promises to reduce tension in the Middle East. The international community and even many US allies in Europe will be opposed to it, and it would only help to unite Iranians behind the mullahs and give a new lease of life to the current regime. So for everybody’s sake, let us hope that cooler heads will prevail both in Tehran and Washington.

  2. Thank you Ms Shireen Hunter for another good article! I believe TRUMP with his selection of the hard liners many of whom are anti Iran, deep down wants to send a message of strength to Iranians so the Iranians don’t misbehave! After all TRUMP is a bazaari who lacks intellect and likes to make business deals and as you know better almost most Iranians are bazaaris too and would love to make business deals! Therefore the relationship between Iran and TRUMP could be a match made in heaven! I’m an optimist and time will tell?

  3. It is important to check whether Trump will realize the following

    – Iran is committed to fighting ISIS while Saudi Arabia or Qatar are quite the contrary
    – Not a single terrorist that operated in the USA was Iranian, they were all Sunnis Arabs or Pakistanis
    – Israel only is feeling threaten militarily because Iran wants a fair resolution to the Palestinian problems and Israel obstinately refuses.
    – Iran, like Trump, prefers to make commercial deals than threaten with blackmails.
    If Trump is pragmatic, he may find that dealing with Iran instead of confronting it could be very rewarding for both countries.

  4. Considering that Obama waiting until the last days of his last administration to drop the “Zero Enrichment” precondition and made a deal with Iran very grudgingly, I think the Iranian govt can’t be blamed for being hesitant to fully embrace rapprochment with the US,

  5. I don’t think this is a realistic assessment of the situation. Note that under the Bush presidency a deal on similar lines as the JCPOA was never on the cards, because the US wanted Iran to give up enrichment permanently. So, the stand off at that time where Iran was increasing its enrichment capacity and the US was trying but failing to stop it, did not lead to the US being able to step up and stop Iran using diplomatic means or military force. I don’t see how Trump can do any better than Bush on the diplomatic front, because we already have deal that the rest of the World is happy with. Also the world has changed since the time Dr. Rice discussed Iran with Lavrov.

    Today Russia has more cards to play to oppose the US. E.g. the JCPOA contains a clause that imposes restriction on arms sales to Iran, Russia would have to get permission to sell advanced fighter aircraft to Iran. If the US were to leave the JCPOA then the US can no longer veto any such proposed arms sale to Iran. On he military front a lot has changed too, with Russia having a much larger presence in the Mid East. Given that Russia has intervened in Syria to protect the regime, would suggest that Russia would not want to see Iran destabilized. Russia has already delivered the S-300 system to Iran, but it can do much more to make an attack on Iran a lot more difficult.

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