Keeping Iran Safe and Prosperous Is Ultimately Its Leaders’ Responsibility

Ayatollah Khamenei (via

by Shireen T. Hunter    

The United States and Iran just avoided a military confrontation that could have degenerated into an open conflict. If allowed to escalate, this conflict would have led to an all-out war with devastating consequence for all involved, especially Iran. But the risk of war by accident or design is still high.

Many commentators have rightly criticized the Trump administration for its misguided policies towards Tehran, notably withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) as well as reinstating old sanctions and imposing new ones. The latest U.S. actions have included sanctions against Ayatollah Khamenei and possibly also its foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who was the key negotiator during the nuclear talks. In fact, the United States is rapidly running out of economic sectors , institutions, and individuals to sanction.

More seriously, the policy of relying on sanctions and other punitive measures without offering any incentives has not yielded the result that the Trump administration had hoped for, either Tehran’s surrender or the internal collapse of the Islamic Republic. Instead, it has resulted in President Trump and Ayatollah Khamenei facing each other like two gunfighters, waiting to see who will draw first.

This situation is fraught with serious dangers. As anyone who has watched a Western movie knows, any minor or suspicious movement on the side of either of the fighters would trigger a shootout that ends in the death of one or both of the fighters. More to the point, in any such confrontation revenge, pride, and maintaining and/or restoring one’s honor play key roles.

Tehran’s Role

The Trump administration’s ill-conceived policies toward Tehran have been largely responsible for the current phase of the long-running, albeit often dormant, crisis in U.S.-Iran relations. However, the present standoff is also the result of the contradictions and anomalies inherent in Iran’s Islamic system as well as the characteristics and skewed priorities of the hardline economic, political, and military mafia that runs Iran.

The biggest problem in Iran, which has progressively gotten worse, is its contradictory and double-headed economic and political system. On the surface, Iran is a religious republic, itself a contradiction in terms, with legislative, executive, and judiciary branches. It holds periodic elections for president and parliament. Beneath the surface, however, it is a clerical elite headed by the supreme leader and supported by a military arm, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) , that establishes the perimeter around what can and cannot be done in the country.

Iran’s president has all the responsibility but little of the power to decide policy. Most recently, President Hassan Rouhani alluded to this reality by demanding extra powers. As a rule, the president gets blamed for all the shortcomings and the supreme leader gets praised for anything good that happens. In addition, following the partial destruction of the state structure in Iran after the revolution, parallel organizations were set up often haphazardly. Their existence now complicates the effective running of the state system and, by extension, the country.

The most pernicious of these organizations was the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Their sole purpose, as its leaders never tire of saying, has been to perpetuate and defend the revolution against “internal and external enemies,” and to achieve its goals within Iran and without. Thus, from the beginning, the IRGC was not a national organization. Its loyalties are not to Iran and the safeguarding of the country’s interests. For the IRGC, Iran is valuable only as a base from which to pursue its revolutionary activities and to implement Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamist vision.

Khomeini’s lack of commitment to Iran is well known. Recently, in an interview, Ali Motahari, a member of parliament and the son of the late Ayatollah Murtaza Mutahari, a close associate of Khomeini’s, said that for the ayatollah, “everything was Islam and for Islam. He wanted Iran for Islam.” In other words, he saw Iran only as an instrument at the service of Islam. This is the approach of the IRGC and other hardline institutions as well. The supreme leader sees himself first as the leader of the world’s Muslims. He is often referred to as Vali e Amr e Muslimin, the leader of all Muslims. Iran is his second or perhaps even third priority.

Within Iran, the main goal of this elite is to maintain its own control over key sectors of the economy. Hence its opposition to the presence of foreign investors and economic and commercial concerns in Iran, and even more so  to overseas Iranian entrepreneurs. One reason the IRGC opposed the nuclear deal was precisely because of the fear that it could lead to the greater presence of foreign economic concerns. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the late Iranian president who tried to rationalize Iran’s state structure, saw the risks involved in a double-headed military and wanted to incorporate the IRGC into the regular army, but he was prevented from doing so. This is potentially a very dangerous situation especially in the case of a military conflict.

The number of organizations involved in developmental matters is also mind-boggling. In addition to the IRGC, the Basij has its own developmental arm, as do various committees and foundations over which the government has no control. The adverse consequences of this managerial disarray were in display during the recent flood rescue operations. Some more thoughtful politicians, Speaker of the Parliament Ali Larijani, criticize these “parallel operations.” But no one dares to question why this situation exists.

Even worse, instead of focusing on maintaining Iran’s security and territorial integrity and ensuring its prosperity, these revolutionary groups have pursued objectives, especially the anti-imperialist struggle and Palestine’s liberation,  that have no direct relation to Iran’s national interests and are clearly beyond its abilities to achieve. In the process, these groups have impoverished and isolated Iran. They‘ve sabotaged every effort at domestic reform and the normalization of Iran’s relations with the world.

The Crisis of the Revolutionary State

One of the hot issues discussed in Iranian media in recent months has been whether the revolution and the revolutionary state is at a dead end. This debate, however, is indirect and comes in the form of attacks on those who are supposedly conveying this idea and denials that the Islamic state has reached this impasse. But the fact that the media feel compelled to deny it shows that the revolution is indeed at a dead end. It is incapable of providing economic well-being. Its so-called religious democracy is dysfunctional, and its ideology’s appeal has seriously eroded.

The regime’s only remaining argument in its own favor is that it has restored Iran’s independence and dignity by challenging America and refusing to submit to it. Thus, talking to America would eliminate the last bastion of the hardliners’ legitimacy. The question seldom asked is how weakening Iran economically and risking its national survival enhance its dignity. American sanctions have exacerbated the inherent dichotomies of the Islamic state and deepened its crisis.

There is no easy and rapid solution to the crisis of Iran’s revolutionary state. But there is a way to at least prevent the crisis from getting any worse: accepting talks with the United States despite all the uncertainties involved in this option. Given how shabbily the Trump administration has treated Iran, this would be a bitter pill for its leadership to swallow.

But Ayatollah Khomeini’s behavior during the Iran-Iraq war sets a good example to follow. Despite his reluctance to deal with the evil Saddam Hussein and the humiliation that coming to terms with him implied, he agreed to a ceasefire in 1989 and saved the country from further destruction. With this decision, he was helped by the influence of Rafsanjani, perhaps the most national-minded of revolutionary leaders.

There is no such figure today to influence the supreme leader. The question is: can Ayatollah Khamenei overcome his pride and his aversion to compromise in what he has characterized as “Iran’s sanctities,” which includes the Palestinian struggle, to save Iran from either a hot war or a war of economic attrition and slow destruction. Ultimately, keeping Iran secure is the responsibility of its own leaders and not Donald Trump.

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. While all candidates for president of Iran must receive the blessing of the Supreme Leader the elections are contested. In 2013 the people of Iran elected Rouhani with a mandate to open Iran to the West which included permitting a very intrusive inspections regime by the IAEA. The signing of the JCPOA by the P5+1 in June 2015 authorized IAEA to put into place tools for continuous inspection of key facilities in Iran and the authorization for spot inspections of sites chosen by the IAEA. The IAEA certified that Iran was not developing nuclear weapons and in January 2016 some sanctions were lifted. Very little if any sanctions relief reached the people of Iran suffering an extreme drought that had devastated much of Iran’s agriculture – a similar situation to Syria in 2011 when protests broke out against its government that devolved into civil war. Despite very little economic relief the people gave Rouhani a landslide victory in the 2017 election. Normally politicians that receive such a strong mandate enjoy greater political power to pursue reforms and other goals. However, Rouhani soon faced a far greater challenge than saving his country from the drought of the century.

    Much of the benefit from the sanctions relief was diverted by the IRGC to the struggle in Syria and Iraq. For this Iran has received considerable criticism not because the long suffering people of Iran did not see benefits from JCPOA, but rather because Iran was painted as an aggressive expansionary power threatening Saudi Arabian, UAE and Israeli interests. Consider if Iran had not gotten involved in fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. It is extremely doubtful that Trump could have claimed that he defeated ISIS. The U.S. and other members of the Anti-ISIS Coalition bombed ISIS positions, but bombs cannot defeat an enemy like ISIS and its sister Sunni jihadist terrorist organizations including Al Qaeda. The speed with which ISIS seized territory in Iraq and Syria meant that ISIS would be a mortal threat to Iran unless it were defeated. With the ISIS threat now receding Iran no longer faces a threat to its survival and can withdraw its forces and support for the various groups that it has supported fighting ISIS.

    On top of the ISIS threat in Syria and Iraq Iran faced the rather bizarre situation that the U.S. chose to adopt a plan for regime change in Iran that would undercut the political power of Rouhani who could not deliver the critically needed economic benefits to his people and who as pointed out by Hunter in this article is under attack by the IRGC, whose actions have been aimed less at spreading the Iranian revolution and more at securing the safety of the country from Sunni jihadist terrorists that receive financial support from supporters in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

    After his inauguration Trump sought to meet his campaign promise to dump the “terrible” nuclear deal to negotiate his own better “deal” with Iran. Mattis, Tillerson, McMaster, Kelly and others advised Trump that as long as Iran had not violated JCPOA to not exit JCPOA. Congress was even less help despite big talk from Rubio and others. John Bolton, fresh from the MEK Congress in July 2017 where he had urged overthrow of Iran’s government , devised a plan to achieve this objective. In August 2017 Bolton published his plan for regime change in his article “How to Get Out of the Iran Nuclear Deal” – even if Iran complies with JCPOA. Bolton said “It is only five pages long, but like instant coffee, it can be readily expanded to a comprehensive, hundred-page playbook.” Iran continued to abide by JCPOA.

    Trump under advise of those that seek the destruction of Iran chose to adopt Bolton’s plan for regime change, and removed McMaster, Tillerson, and Kelly hiring Bolton and Pompeo. Congress would not have allowed Bolton into a position requiring confirmation so he was made National Security Advisor, a position for which he is by temperament unsuited, but which could be filled without Congress. The plan for regime change seeks to drive Iran’s oil exports and other trade to zero to collapse its economy and to enable MEK and related groups to seize power. The claim that its purpose is to drive Iran to the negotiating table is bogus. Pompeo’s 12 demands and the more recent sanctions against Khamenei and Zarif are specifically designed to make negotiations with the U.S. politically impossible for the present leadership of Iran.

    What could another president have done who had not made commitments to exit JCPOA and who did not have the obsession of regime change in Iran? Based on Hunter’s article Rouhani’s hand could have been strengthened to pursue some reforms and actions could have been encouraged to bring economic relief to the people of Iran. Iran has term limits on the presidency so in 2021 another leader would have been selected. If Rouhani were successful this leader would further pursue reforms and strengthen the role of the government vis a vis the IRGC. Trump appears to have destroyed this possibility. What Trump could do is to fire Bolton and seek better advice and then on the basis of sound advise and competent leadership in the State Department Trump could stil address the challenge of Iran before it damages his reelection prospects.

    Bolton is totally obsessed with regime change in Iran even if that would weaken reelection prospects for Trump. He may even hold the view that a war with Iran would strengthen Trump’s reelection bid. However, a war with Iran may be so damaging for U.S. interests that the American people would want to thoroughly clean house and not just the White House.

  2. The article seeks to pander to a section of Iranians, however, Islam and Muslims are intertwined wherever they may be,and that’s the rôle the Islamic Republic is plays and will continue to play.
    Without the revolution and the sacrifices of Iranians, the globalized world would have been immersed long ago in dystopia!

  3. As an Iranian saying goes which Shireen understands well “To the blind eye of Shireen joon and other ill wishers of Iran’” independence Iran and Iranians have stood their revolution and independence against the global tyrannical hegemony which Shireen sake to preserve and protect with her propaganda write ups.

  4. Aliya neglects to mention that Iran prefers to fight proxy wars, using Useful Idiots such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

    The last time it actually attacked Israel, it learnt a valuable lesson:

    40 Iranian missiles fired at Israeli positions on the Golan in the middle of the night (we heard the explosions in Tiberias).

    36 landed inside Syria.

    4 were shot down by the IDF.

    In the following 3 hours, the IAF then destroyed 70 Iranian Revolutionary guard military installations.

    Then the IAF broke for lunch.

    Since then, nada.

  5. Tony

    If I remember right, the last time iran fired a missile it hit a globale hawk drone.
    But I guess it must have been a cheap American toy ,Or else how could iran have been able to hit it!

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