Iran’s Punishment Has Far Exceeded Its Crimes

Mike Pompeo arrives at the Warsaw meeting, alongside Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz (State Department via Flickr)

by Shireen Hunter    

The  U.S.-sponsored conference in Warsaw, which just concluded in Warsaw, was ostensibly about peace and stability in the Middle East. But it was really just an opportunity to gang up on Iran. Before attending the meeting, Israel’s prime minister in a video on the sidelines of the summit called for action by Arabs and Israel against Iran, which his office translated as meaning war. The Hebrew word used indeed means war.

Yet the level of participation at the summit was not as high as the United States had hoped. Several Middle East states, including Lebanon, Iraq, and Qatar, plus the Palestinian groups, refused to attend the conference. Some others, including Egypt and Tunisia, were represented at the deputy minister level. Turkey did not participate and said that its embassy in Warsaw will follow the conference. Russia was also absent as was Federica Mogherini, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs. The heads of states and foreign ministers of major European powers, except Britain, were also absent.

Turkey’s absence was because Ankara did not want to be part of an anti-Iran operation. Moreover, from Ankara’s perspective, a conference ostensibly on peace and stability in the Middle East cannot be credible without the participation of Palestinian groups.

However, the real objective of the conference was to garner international support for even more pressure on Tehran. Yet, economic and other pressures on Iran, including domestic sabotage, have reached their limit short of acts of war like a military attack or a total blockade. In fact, the punishments meted out to Iran in the last 40 years have far exceeded any real or imaginary crimes committed by the Islamic Republic. In Iran’s case, the long-established principle that the punishment should fit the crime has been ignored.

First, ostensibly in retaliation for Iran’s revolutionary rhetoric and alleged subversion, Iraq launched a full-scale invasion of the country in September 1980. Regardless of whether Iraq received any encouragement from the major powers in this adventure, it received during the eight-year war that followed money and sophisticated weapons, including chemical arms, from major industrial states. The war resulted in more than one million Iranian dead and injured, including by chemical weapons. When Iraq started the tanker war in 1987, followed by America’s reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers, the United States attacked Iranian ships and oil platforms in retaliation for acts actually committed by Iraq. Then, the USS Vincennes attacked an Iranian passenger plane, killing more than 200 Iranians.

At the end of the war, Iraq emerged relatively unscathed, partly because of sophisticated weaponry from the West, but Iran’s southern and western provinces were devastated. The country’s losses amounted to at least $600 billion, according to then-president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani. The war’s    termination did not end Iran’s problems. After a brief period during the first Persian Gulf war in 1991, the United States embarked on a policy of containing Iran, despite outreach by Iran throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. The economic pressures on Iran steadily mounted as sanctions became gradually more onerous, reaching their worst state under President Barack Obama. They became what Hillary Clinton called “crippling.”

The cost of these sanctions to Iran’s economy and to its people’s well-being and even to its environment, although difficult to calculate precisely, have certainly been heavy. No doubt, some of Iran’s actions were responsible for these countermeasures. Most notable is the hostage crisis of 1979-1980. Those who orchestrated this event did the most damage to Iran. But Iran paid heavily for it in terms of blood and treasure. Some of Iran’s activities in Lebanon have also been harmful.

But charges of sabotage against Iran in the Persian Gulf are highly exaggerated. Certainly, Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have financed and helped groups in Baluchistan and Kurdistan that have committed terrorist acts inside Iran that have caused the death of hundreds of Iranians, and possibly more. The latest incident, instigated by the Saudi-supported Jaish ul Adl, occurred in Baluchistan on February 12. Iran has not directly attacked any country, while Saudi Arabia has launched a full-scale and devastating war against Yemen. Iran’s engagement in local conflicts—in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria—have occurred only after they were triggered by the actions of other states: Israel in Lebanon, the United States in Iraq, and Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Iran has not initiated any conflict.

Iran’s transgressions against Israel have also been mostly rhetorical. There is no risk that Iran could attack Israel, despite the inflammatory rhetoric of some of its hardliners. Iran knows that such an act would invite American and European retaliation. The only risk of war between the two states is through their entanglement in local disputes or an American attack on Iran. Ironically, if the United States had pursued engagement with Iran and worked for a true and fair peace between Israel and the  Palestinians, today Iran and Israel might not be enemies. The character of Iran’s regime, too, might be softer and its domestic and regional behavior better. For example, if in 2003, America had accepted Iran’s offer to discuss regional issues, the situation today could have been different. Sadly, the United States never seriously or continuously pursued the engagement option with Tehran.

U.S. authorities, especially Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, argue that sanctions and other pressures on Iran are for the benefit of Iranian people. It is hard to believe how increasing unemployment, pushing prices up, impoverishing  the people, and depriving them of food and medicine can be interpreted as favors. The distinction between the government and people is a false one. Whether intended or not, when governments are sanctioned it is the people and not the political leadership who suffer most.

The argument that the goal of sanctions is to help bring about democracy in Iran is also not valid. Cuba is a good example of the failure of promoting democracy through sanctions and isolation. More often, societies under siege tend to hunker down and become more repressive rather than open up. Regime change is also unlikely to lead to the flourishing of democracy, as the experience of the Iranian revolution demonstrates. Once the existing regime collapses, competition and jockeying to replace it begin in earnest as happened after the ouster of the shah. In view of the divided nature of the Iranian opposition and the country itself, the collapse of the current system would most likely result in intense infighting among today’s opposition over the the control of the country, thus plunging Iran into another long period of turmoil and possibly even civil war. Moreover, groups such as the Mojahedin-e Khalq, which the United States apparently hopes will replace the current regime, have had a totalitarian and undemocratic ideology from their very inception.

In short, the only chance for democracy in Iran is through the evolution of the country’s political culture.  There can be no democracy without democrats. Democracy is not a tree that you plant and it automatically gives fruit. It is the outcome of an often long process of social and cultural change. Revolutions, wars, and sudden changes that interrupt this process delay the growth of democracy. Should the current stand-off with Iran lead to a military confrontation, it would threaten not only the chances for democracy in Iran but the country’s very existence. But maybe this is just what some regional states and  separatist groups inside Iran want.

At present, the United States has the power to pursue a harsher policy towards Iran and even use military force against it. But it should not expect that Iranians inside and outside the country who care about its destiny and are not motivated by revenge and lust for power will believe that all these punishments are for Iran’s own good. Instead, the United States should take a second look at Iran’s alleged crimes and ponder whether the country has not already been sufficiently punished. After that, it might decide that engagement and compromise with Iran would succeed better in achieving its goal than sanctions and isolation have done.

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. “In short, the only chance for democracy in Iran is through the evolution of the country’s political culture.”

    Islamic idealism in Iran prevents.

  2. Finally a writeup by Shireen Hunter that doesn’t drip Islamophobia. There must be a cure somewhere.

  3. If the Israelis want a war with Iran then let them do it themselves instead of using Arabs and Americans to fight for them.

  4. Thank you Ms Hunter for your awakening! There’s a first time for anything or anyone! Please send couple of those awakening pills to Ali Dumbo may be just may be he’d be awakened too!

  5. Ms Hunter, it’s surprising that you couldn’t be more clear and to the point that the chemical weapons were given to Saddam by the US and Germany! Instead you lumped them as done by the West

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