Iran Should Take American Threats Seriously

by Shireen T. Hunter

It was not surprising that Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, national security adviser to President Donald Trump, “officially put…Iran on notice,” following what he cited as “recent Iranian actions, including a provocative ballistic missile launch and an attack against a Saudi naval vessel conducted by Iran-supported Houthi militants.” President Trump himself later confirmed these comments.

In view of President Trump’s statements before and during the presidential campaign and given the ideological bent of his key advisers, a hardening of American position towards Iran was inevitable. In fact, even if former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had won the presidency, Iran would no doubt have faced even tougher times than during the Obama administration.

Yet many Iranians, including political leaders, somehow deluded themselves into believing that as a businessman Donald Trump would be willing to cut a deal. Shortly after the presidential election, I warned in Lobelog that the only deal that Donald Trump likes is one that he wins totally. I also wrote that any deal based on the concept of win-win, of which Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, is so fond, is not the kind of deal that appeals to President Trump. Furthermore, in emphasizing America’ s honor and pride, Trump would be reluctant to deal with a country that he believes has humiliated America, including the incident of captured US Navy personnel in January 2016 .

Despite warnings by the United States, echoed by others as well, Iran decided to take the measure of the Trump administration by conducting a ballistic missile test only a few days after the new president assumed office. If indeed Tehran wanted to see how the new administration would respond, it got its answer: Iran has now been verbally rebuked and slapped with new US sanctions. As has been the habit of the Islamic Republic, the Iranian government’s immediate response to these warnings was defiance and tit-for-tat retaliation. Foreign Minister Zarif tweeted that Iran is “unmoved by threats,” although he did add that “We’ll never initiate war.” Iranian newspapers repeated Ayatollah Khomeini’s famous saying that America won’t dare do anything against Iran. Then Iran denied entry to a US wrestling team (later rescinded), and the Iranian media kept asking President Hassan Rouhani to retaliate against American sanctions.

The Islamic Republic has always walked too close to the edge in its foreign policy behavior, especially regarding relations with the United States, which has combined mostly rhetorical defiance with actual pragmatism. Whenever the risks of an actual confrontation have been great, Iran has backed off and even tried to cut a deal with the US, as at the time of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. However, as soon as the immediate threat has passed, it has reverted to its defiant posture. For example, only days after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) went into effect in October 2015, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) tested a medium-range Emad ballistic missile, thus greatly dissipating any good will that might have been generated by the agreement. At the time, some moderate elements in Iran questioned the wisdom of this action.

This aspect of Iran’s foreign policy is a direct result of its distorted priorities. Instead of focusing on Iran’s interests as a country and nation, the Islamic Republic has pursued a policy shaped by a warped version of Islamic universalism. Ironically, Iran is not accepted in the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim world as truly Muslim. Over the years, it has spent billions of dollars on Syria, which is Sunni-majority but Alawite-dominated, including shipments of cheap oil. It has also supported various Palestinian groups that every time have turned against it, as when Arafat supported Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion of Iran, and more recently Hamas, which has backed Saudi Arabia’s role in Syria. By picking an unnecessary fight with Israel, Iran has actually brought Israelis and some Arabs closer together.

Iran’s dispute with Israel has been the main reason for its troubled relations with America and Europe and to some extent even Russia and China. As long as Iran does not reach a modus vivendi with Israel, as it had in pre-Islamic Revolutionary times, it cannot expect normal relations with other countries. The threat of some form of military action, by the United States and/or Israel, will remain. In October 2016, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel urged Iran “to improve its relationship with Israel if it wanted to establish closer economic ties with Germany and other western powers.”

Meanwhile, all of Iran’s neighbors, big and small, have taken advantage of the country’s international isolation in every possible way. For instance, though it boasts that it will not bow to America, Iran remained silent when tiny Turkmenistan cut gas supplies to the country during the current tough winter. A government that so often talks about Iran’s honor, pride, and dignity does not seem bothered by these insults and slights and many others like them. But it considers even talking to America against its national dignity.

Iran has paid a huge price for its distorted set of priorities and for privileging religion over national interests, including economic advancement. In fact, since the revolution, Iran has lost decades of economic development, not to mention the losses caused by the eight-year war with Iraq (1980-88). There have also been costs associated with sanctions, rampant corruption, and managerial deficiencies. Even the country’s birth rate has become negative, reflecting its people’s low expectation of future possibilities. Iran is facing both an environmental and a demographic disaster.

The Trump administration’s policies now confront the Islamic Republic and its leaders with a stark choice: either to give priority to protecting Iran’s survival as a country, nation, and culture or to risk sacrificing it on the altar of some vague notion of Islamic universalism and anti-imperialist struggle. Unfortunately, some in Iran would willingly sacrifice Iran to bring about a cataclysmic denouement in the Middle East. A US-Iranian confrontation that might even lead to open conflict might provide just such an opportunity.

As the new U.S. administration decides what to do about Iran’s behavior—and before it chooses to escalate its threats even to the point of a possible military confrontation—it should be aware that some Iranians would welcome a chance to entangle America in a long war, even if their country becomes the greatest victim of such a conflict. But perhaps Iran’s Islamists will realize before it is too late that, if Iran ceases to exist as country, they will be left with nothing and nowhere to go. Coming to their senses, they will thus step back from the brink before it is too late.

Photo of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani by Erfan Kouchari via Wikimedia Commons.

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. What a very strange, but very American, way to view a sovereign, non-belligerent country which has been vilified ans mistreated for so long by the USA which also bullies other nations into acting the same way. Iran has kept its part of the deal, but the USA of course can never be wrong or mistaken, and never forgives any act of anyone which does not conform to US pretensions.

  2. I am surprised by this article that throw all the blame of Iran for the instability in the region.
    The author wants Iran to renounce to its revolutionary ideology inherent to Shiism of defending the Moslems oppressed in the region ( Palestinian, Yemenis) and to become an obedient puppet to the West.
    Iran was this puppet when the Shah was there and it will never return to that humiliating dependency. It will continue to fight back any force that want to enslave it.
    The USA has failed to crush Iran in 40 years, it is deluded if it think it can now but ridiculous accusations and artificial tensions.
    The immediate victims will be the obedient USA allies in the region that are in total dependency on the USA for their security. They are the Achilleus’s heel of the USA.
    The imposition of sanctions was immediately responded by a Yemeni missile on Ryadh, the capital of the KSA, creating a panic.The King must be begging Trump to stop the provocations as long as the Yemen war is going on. Iran can inflict enormous pain to the USA forces in Yemen anytime. It has loyal operatives everywhere in the region and it can use them anytime.
    Therefore more trouble is looming in Kuwait and Bahrein if the USA continues its bellicose accusations.
    Iran is a partner with Russia and Turkey to bring an end to the Syrian disaster created and funded by the USA and its allies.
    It won’t be stopped by hysterical calls in the USA
    The author will be surprised by Iran’s level of retaliation if Trump escalate the tension.

  3. Dear Professor Hunter, I’m truly surprised by your recommendation that Iran has NO rights to defend itself against any external aggression and more importantly you are implying that Iran should capitulate to the west with NO resistance! I’m totally disappointed!

  4. Professor hunter, every sane Iranian person shares your point of view. Iran should prioritize national interests over revolutionary ideologies. What did these revolutionary ideologues bring to the country. Death to america, death to Israel. Let’s balance the ledger,nearly 40 years later what do we have. Extreme poverty, a toilet paper currency, I remember the exchange rate at the time of the shah, now even Afghanistan’s currency is stronger. Several decades of mismanagement and placing of incompetent and illiterate khodies. When one can remember that a gardener “rediscovering” islam would be turned into a hospital director… That miracle has produced people struggling with three jobs and desperate to leave the country and join our community of 6 millions expats worldwide. These people are ready to send billions to arabs but are not capable of dropping water from helicopters for the plasco building. They rebuild Lebanon but Tehran streets are like a pile of garbage. Now the environment. The foreign attacks against the ballistic and nuclear program were illegitimate but iran’s stance on Israel and the US is self-defeating not to say absurd. It raises worldwide defiance towards the regime and even the people sometimes.The supreme gift of the revolution would be a disastrous war and partitioning of the country. I wished president Rohani and mr Zarif had unfettered power in Iran. Without Rafsanjani, the shouting donkeys in Iran will echo trump and his team. May god help us all.

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