Iran’s Geopolitical Predicament and Its Consequences

by Shireen Hunter  

For some time now, most Middle East states and a good number of Western countries have portrayed Iran as the main cause of problems in the Middle East and parts of South Asia. Iran emerges from this narrative as the world’s biggest sponsor of terrorism and, in general, an all-around source of evil.

The United States, in particular, has tended to blame all of its setbacks in the Middle East and Afghanistan on Iran. If America’s plans for Iraq did not pan out it was because of Iran, if the Syrian war is not going the way it was intended the fault is Iran’s, if Saudi Arabia is leveling Yemen it is because of Iran, and so on. In Afghanistan, the US does not blame its setbacks on Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which created and have sustained the Taliban, but Iran.

This perception of Iran as behind every trouble in these regions implies a degree of power and influence that Iran absolutely lacks. Any clear-headed analysis of Iran’s material power—economic, military as well as its so-called soft power—will demonstrate that it does not have any great influence over regional developments. Rather, any influence that Iran might have gained has been largely the outcome of Western mistakes, including a disregard for the ethnic, religious, and political realities of the region.

Take Syria, for example. President Bashar al-Assad would have been willing to abandon Iran if Israel had been willing to compromise on the Golan Heights. In fact, Assad said so many times although perhaps not exactly in such stark language. In Iraq, a government that is supposedly run by Iran refuses to accept the 1975 agreement that settled the issue of the contested waterway of Shatt al-Arab. Among other indignities, Iraq refuses to deal with sand storms that are choking Iran. In Turkey, Iran is called the Persian Satan. Afghanistan refuses to pay Iran’s water rights, thus turning the legendary Hamoon lake into a desert. Iran educates hundreds of thousands of Afghans at great expense and and many work in the country, legally and illegally. Yet Afghanistan’s press attacks Iran, and its government refuses to cooperate on many border issues, including the presence there of groups hostile to the Iranian government.

So, if Iran is so powerful, how can everyone blame, demonize, and scapegoat Iran without paying a price? The simple answer, and the one most frequently offered, is that the Islamic regime is the culprit. True, the behavior of Iran in many areas leaves much to be desired, and it no doubt has greatly contributed to the current conditions. However, this answer is not quite sufficient.

Even before the 1979 revolution, the West in particularly tended to magnify Iran’s faults while ignoring or soft-pedaling the shortcomings of other Middle East states. Gamal Abdul Nasser’s invasion of Yemen did not even receive a slap on the wrist. But when the Shah tried to help Oman fight the Dhofar rebellion, Persian imperialism was allegedly on the march. When the Shah celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian monarchy, he was accused of a folie de grandeur, although most of the money was spent not on the event itself but on infrastructural projects such as roads and hotels. Yet the billions of dollars that Persian Gulf princes and sheikhs spend on personal luxuries barely received a mention.

Iran’s Cultural Isolation

Despite invasions by the Greeks, Arabs, and a variety of Turko-Mongol armies and the ensuing losses that reduced the country’s Persian core, Iran was not Hellenized, Arabized, or Turkified. On the contrary, Iran’s Arab and Turkic invaders largely became culturally Persianized. As Ada Bozman has said if “Islam conquered Iran, then Iran conquered Islam.” Iran also retained its separate language and culture and, by embracing Shiism, carved out its own unique place within Islam. But Iran has also paid a price: loneliness. In its neighborhood Iran has no natural allies or ethnic kin. Those who are closest, like Afghanistan and Tajikistan, are separated by religion while those who are close by religion like Iraq and Azerbaijan are separated by ethnicity and language. This loneliness also means that one can mistreat Iran without having to face opposition from other states. There is no League of Persian States that would come to Iran’s rescue. Because it is Shia, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation also will not help Iran or protest when it is mistreated.

Meanwhile, Iran’s value to major international players has been derivative: it has been useful in achieving other goals or serving as a buffer and not as an ally for whom one would assume responsibility. Sir Dennis Wright, the one-time British ambassador in Tehran in the 1960s, wrote that Britain never considered Iran of sufficient value to colonize it. British policy was to keep Iran moribund and deny it to Russia. America essentially followed the same policy. The United States did not sign a security treaty with Iran and gave it less money than even to Nasser’s Egypt, which at the time was flirting with the Soviet Union. America has also been much more willing to experiment in Iran than, say, Turkey or Saudi Arabia, as it did both under John Kennedy and Jimmy Carter administrations. Much of the turmoil of the 1970s was the result of the drastic, highly controversial, and quickly implemented reforms in the 1960s in response to America’s urging. The Shah thought that he would lose American support if he didn’t attempt the changes. By and large, Russia too has had the same attitude towards Iran, except when Stalin tried to turn Iran into a constellation of Soviet Republics in the shape of current “Stans.”

Iran is both too big and too small. It is too big for the comfort of both its neighbors and the great powers. At the same time, it is too small to deter aggression. Iran is no China or India whose sheer size inhibits aggressors.

Iran’s Geopolitical Challenge

Iran’s geopolitical predicament, and the fact that it is blocked both on its eastern and Western fronts, means that any Iranian effort to escape its confinement prompts accusations of expansionism or imperialism. When Saddam Hussein, before Kuwait’s invasion, was sabotaging the Gulf Sheikdoms nobody called that “illegitimate interference.” But Iran cannot even have a school or a mosque in Bahrain without begin accused of terrorism.

As Napoleon said, “Geography is destiny.” But one can mitigate one’s geographic, and in Iran’s case, cultural misfortune. Given its predicament, Iran needs an essentially nationalist, self –contained, pragmatic, and non-ideological approach to foreign policy. . It needs to avoid entanglement in others’ disputes, especially when its direct security interests are not threatened. It may not be able to avoid some entanglement in the Persian Gulf, given that some regional states are interfering in Iran itself and the Persian Gulf is vital for Iran’s security. But it should not become embroiled in disputes in the Levant such as the Arab-Israeli conflict. Iran needs to have good relations with all major players so that regional players cannot manipulate its difficulties. In this context, its refusal to deal with America is highly destructive. If Iran wants to voice its concerns, it should do so through accepted international fora.

Sadly, the likelihood that the government in Tehran will heed this advice is nearly zero. On the contrary, since the revolution, Iran’s foreign policy behavior has done nothing but exacerbate its geopolitical predicament. The current government’s distorted priorities, which emphasize vague and unattainable Islamist goals instead of focusing on the country’s survival and prosperity, has brought Iran to the point when just about everybody uses and abuses it for their own selfish purposes and no one raises its voice to defend it.

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. James,

    Yes I agree that many Zionists believe the occupation should be ended, although “how” it is to be ended is a different question. Some would annex the West Bank to end it and others would try to build an Arab state there. I don’t think any reasonable person suggests Israeli forces just leave like they did in Gaza or Southern Lebanon. We all know what the result would be.

    I would even agree that creation of a Palestinian state was the majority view among Zionists, but that is changing and may no longer be the majority view. The reason for the shift is that people are opening there eyes and realizing that the Arabs are not ready to run a state there and there are not enough resources to create a separate state their either. Also, many Zionists have become disillusioned or even fed up with the Palestinians. Sometimes it is just not meant to be.

    I know someone is going to say “who am I” to say what the Palestinians are ready for. Well it is not for me to say, but it is for the Israelis to say since they have to live next to those guys. Just like I would not be happy if several families of American street gang members wanted to move into my neighborhood, I can understand the Israeli concerns.

    In my opinion, momentum is beginning to build toward other solutions than a Palestinian state in the West Bank. BDS represents a last expression of frustration from the anti-Zionist factions. Remember economic warfare goes two ways.

  2. Yeah Right,

    You are just making up facts now.

    “One group is funding, supporting, and “promoting” jihadist organizations who will continue to attack “western” targets for as long as they continue to receive that funding, support and promotion.

    The other group is fighting those jihadist organizations with the aim of destroying them utterly.”

    Really, where is your proof. Hezbollah has attacked Western targets since the 1980s and it is a Shia group. And that is not the only Shia extremist group.

    “Western researchers and Arab analysts believe that Iran is supporting more than 50 militias in Iraq and another 50 in Syria whose atrocities are not less than those of the Islamic State.” The article in The Clarion lists numerous Shia groups committing atrocities in Syria and Iraq.

    Iran has also sponsored Shia terrorist groups in Bahrain and Pakistan.

    While it is true to a significant extent that Shia and Sunni Muslims want to kill each other and call each other infidels, it is not true either group is truly pro-West.

    Right now we have an understanding with certain Sunni factions, but no deal with the Shia’s.

    If the Iranians were smart, right after 9-11 they could have launched a charm offensive to be the good guys in the eyes of the Americans and put their Sunni enemies in even a badder light than 9-11 did. Remember, we had good relations with the Shia’s under the Shah. But they are not smart, or even stupid, they are insane or at least controlled by an insane clerical leadership.

    So, I say again (last chance Yeah Right) cite some factual evidence that ANY Shia terrorist group is better than any Sunni terrorist group.


  3. John O,

    Not going to respond to every point in detail, but quickly:


    I will let the editors of LobeLog speak for themselves, I do not have impression they are against Zionism per se like you are.


    Zionism derives from the same Bible Jews and Christians follow. Zion is a term that refers to Jerusalem and the Bible describes how the Jewish people in exile longed to return to Zion. Zionism is a belief in that connection of the Jewish people and Zion.

    Zionism has nothing to do with European colonialism since Israel is not a “colony” of any European country. This is all too easy. You just spout leftwing talking points with no basis.

    If you are a Jew and don’t believe Jews have the right to live in Israel then you are indeed an imbecile or a self-hating Jew.

    Do the Irish have a right to live in Ireland?


    What? Hezbollah does not commit religiously motivated aggression? No one is occupying Hezbollah or Lebanon yet they continue to make threats against Israel. All Muslim extremist groups either oppress someone or are oppressed by someone and usually both. The problem is with their ideology.


    I did not say anything about “white man.” Was the Shah a “white man” and Khomeini a “person of color.” Get off your anti-white man crusade. I was just stating an objective fact. The animals in Animal Farm were better off under the farmer than the pigs.


    Syria attacked Israel repeatedly from the Golan from 1948-1967 and stated it was going to attack Israel in 1967. Israel struck first. Too bad, too sad. They lost it, they don’t get it back unless Israel decides in connection with some deal to give it back. Right now, Syria does not have much to offer and for that matter is not much of a country.


    I have already demonstrated on many other posts that no “country of Palestine” ever existed. Most certainly, Palestine was a territory of various empires and Arab people lived in that territory over time as did some Jews. On a different point someone was obsessed by the fact the Palestine Mandate of 1920-1922 referred to Palestine as a “country” while also calling it a territory of Turkey. However, even he admitted that “country” did not mean a nation-state. So if it makes you feel better I will clarify there was never a Palestinian “state” or “nation” where Arabs calling themselves Palestinians ruled over themselves.


    Israel is a Jewish state, take it or leave it. Why are you defending the Palestinians, would you want to live in a Palestinian state? This is the way I always expose hypocrites who go on and on about how great the Palestinians are.


    It goes back much further than the Nazis. Those who are religiously inclined could probably explain it to you better than me but I have found trying to explain religious concepts to atheists a pointless endeavor.

  4. JW The principle is what is most important. Perhaps it will take many years before Israeli forces are entirely out of the West Bank. Alternative, of course, is Apartheid.

  5. JW – – Hezbollah has made clear it will not attack Israel unless Israel attacks first. Hezbollah is not a threat to the US.

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