Obama’s Departure: More Difficulties for Iran

by Shireen T. Hunter

Although disappointed about the economic benefits flowing from the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran’s political leadership feels fairly certain that at least the threat of a potential U.S. military strike has now disappeared. Also, even if the United States were to re-impose sanctions, in addition to those non-nuclear related sanctions already in existence, the Iranian leadership is confident that other countries, including European states, will not follow America’s lead.

Iran’s hardliners, in particular, are pushing this line of thinking as a way to prevent any further steps to move US-Iran relations in a more positive direction. They also argue that America has suffered setbacks in Iraq and Syria and will not risk becoming entangled with Iran. In short, at least judging by various statements and commentaries, especially by hardliners, the nuclear deal has created a false sense of security in Iran.

Iranians don’t seem to appreciate that President Barack Obama’s outlook on world affairs, his preference for diplomacy for resolving disputes, and his commitment to free the United States from unnecessary military entanglements were largely responsible for the success of the nuclear negotiations. The same has been true of Secretary of State John Kerry. Had President Obama’s predecessor taken a similar approach, an agreement could have been reached much earlier.

The situation will change on January 20, 2017, when a new administration comes to power in the United States—regardless of who wins the presidential election today.

Hillary Clinton and Iran

Under President Hillary Clinton, the United States would adopt a more hardline approach towards Iran. As secretary of state, she advocated a tough attitude vis-à-vis Iran. She has proudly said that she was instrumental in devising and imposing tough sanctions on Iran. In fact, she coined the phrase “crippling sanctions.” In her 2008 presidential campaign, she also threatened Iran with total obliteration in case it attacked Israel. In general, Hillary Clinton has disagreed with President Obama’s Middle East policy. Her statements regarding the need to revitalize America’s relations with its traditional allies, such as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, indicate that she would listen with greater sympathy to their complaints about Iran and would be more willing to accept their estimation of Iran’s alleged threat to their security. Of course, she would be far more sensitive to Israel’s fears and concerns.

Similarly, President Clinton would likely support more direct US engagement in regional conflicts, most notably in Syria. As a first step, she would be less tolerant of Iran’s engagement in that country. This approach could even mean targeting some members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) active in Syria. Should this happen, it would put Iran in a difficult position. President Clinton may also be less tolerant of some of the activities of the IRGC’s naval vessels in the Persian Gulf.

The Clinton administration may also pressure Iran on its missile program. The United States could always argue that the UN Security Council Resolution 2231 has prohibited Iran from developing missiles potentially capable of delivering nuclear warheads, even though under the nuclear deal Iran has given up the option of developing nuclear weapons.

Then there’s the risk of accidental confrontation, which could arise with a less tolerant US attitude to Iran’s regional activities, especially in Persian Gulf waters, and the tendency of at least some IRGC commanders to adopt a defiant posture. Iran’s unwillingness so far to talk to American military authorities—to prevent any accidental confrontation at sea and to work out ways of handling cases of accidental transgression of Iran’s territorial waters—has kept alive the risk of confrontation. This risk would be enhanced if a Clinton administration adopted a tougher stand towards Iran.

Finally, the belief that any normalization of US-Iranian relations is not possible as long as the current regime in Tehran remains in power is strong among those foreign policy experts and former policy makers who are likely to gain influence in a Clinton administration. Given US disappointment that the nuclear deal hasn’t opened the way to some sort of understanding with Iran on other issues, such views would gain more credibility.

Donald Trump and Iran

If Donald Trump emerges the victor in the US presidential election, Iran would not be better off. The view that Trump is a deal maker with whom it’s easier to do business is totally misguided. The only kind of deal Trump likes is one in which he vanquishes his opponent. The “win-win” strategy of which Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is so fond is not Trump’s style.

Trump also would be sensitive to any real or imagined slights to America’s national pride. He has already said that if he is president no American would be captured. Nor would anybody who commits such an act go unpunished. Moreover, the foreign policy expert pool from which Trump is likely to choose his officials is even harder on Iran.

Given the situation regardless of who is elected, Iran must realize that it cannot continue its cat-and-mouse foreign policy if it wants to prosper and be secure. Iran must also realize that, despite all of its setbacks, the United States is still a formidable power. Should it decide to bring the full weight of its military might against Iran, the costs for Iran would be prohibitive, although America would also incur heavy costs. Finally, Iran must realize that, under no circumstances, would Europe side with Iran against America, nor would Russia or China come to Iran’s aid in case of a US attack.

Iran should thus use the remaining two months of the Obama administration to take bold and positive actions towards America. It should, for instance, offer to hold bilateral talks on Syria, Yemen, and other outstanding regional issues. Unfortunately, shifting political winds in Iran, the spectacle of anti-American demonstrations on the anniversary of the 1979 hostage-taking, and statements by Iran’s hardliners—which even some moderates have had to echo—all suggest that Iran will continue its self -defeating foreign policy. This has already undermined its economic progress and other interests, making it possible for even its smaller neighbors to manipulate and humiliate it.

Photo: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

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. Wrong assessment on Trump who has a very long standing position of non intervention. Something he has to say to gain votes from the right wing of the “base” will disappear before he even takes office. Rest assured. (Trump pandered least of most any candidate, and that basically being forced by the ugly Clinton coronation machine.)

  2. “revitalize America’s relations with its traditional allies, such as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States,” and of course upgrading the already pandering policy to Israel, shows the lack of any interest in democracy, freedom or peace in the Hillary Clinton plan. The whole idea of punishing Iran, which threatens and invades nobody, while the USA and its allies and puppets manage to destabilize and destroy so many countries,means that a miracle would be needed to enable any advances in the new “Administration” in the USA. I notice it is always the “Iranian régime”, but the US maladministrations are not called régimes.

  3. It seems that opportunities for improving U.S.-Iranian ties are always missed except in the rare instances where each side simultaneously wants a positive-sum outcome. In both Tehran and Washington, there is a long history of reliance on a knee-jerk zero-sum attitude reinforced by old prejudices regardless of how much damage such shortsightedness does to the security of each side. With the dangerous and emotional nuclear issue now on the back burner (and having proven the utility of diplomacy), the context should be good for calm, rational planning, and three issues begging for U.S.-Iranian coordination are front and center: the wars in Yemen, Syria, and the Islamic State region. Difficult as resolution of these three crises will be, each is in fact rich with opportunities for innovative moves than would simultaneously enhance both U.S. and Iranian national security, but the factional disputes of domestic politics appear more important to each side than enhancing national security. Nothing is easier for noisy hardliners than sabotaging peace feelers: in our Alice in Wonderland political world, somehow hardliners can make brinkmanship look “safe” and incremental steps toward rational, positive-sum outcomes look “dangerous.” It is hard to see any U.S. or Iranian foreign policy specialist capable of articulating a path leading the two states out of the self-defeating psychological trap in which the two countries remain caught.

  4. In an earlier response to another post, I wrote ” Clinton will undermine the nuclear deal without leaving any fingerprints “. I still 100 percent stand by this.
    I hope some common sense will prevail in Iran. They need to abandon the childish and naive thinking that this agreement will survive after January 20. For the sake of their country I hope they will read your article and take the advice .

  5. One positive outcome of a Trump Presidency is the Potential obliteration of the Fascist Turbans running the country. Good-bye Khameini

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