The Iran Nuclear Controversy Is a Symptom of Other Problems

John Kerry and Mohammad Javad Zarif (U.S. State Department via Flickr)

by Shireen T. Hunter

In the last few days, an informal haggling between the United States and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program has developed. Reportedly Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that if America lifted all sanctions on Iran permanently, the Iranian parliament would ratify the IAEA’s additional protocols that calls for very intrusive and extensive inspections. Meanwhile, President Trump has said that the U.S. may want a “100 year deal” to restrict Iran’s nuclear program.

However, it has been clear from the very beginning that agreement about the nuclear issue would not resolve U.S.-Iran problems and lead to normal relations between the two states. Let’s be clear that, as former Secretary of State John Kerry has said, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was to be the beginning of a process of negotiations with Iran on other issues, notably Iran’s missile program and its so-called regional activities. Thus the partial suspension of sanctions was a kind of encouragement for Iran to engage in talks on the issues that really matter for the United States. In fact, one reason the U.S. has shown such sensitivity to Iran’s nuclear program—as opposed say to that of Pakistan, even though Pakistan is close to the Sea of Oman and thus to the Persian Gulf—is because Washington on the whole does not see Islamabad’s regional policies as threatening American interests.

Iran’s Challenge to the Regional Order

At its core, the U.S.-Iran dispute derives from the Islamic Republic’s openly declared goal of fighting imperialism, which it defines basically as the influence of America and its regional allies. In other words, Iran—at least rhetorically—poses a challenge to a regional order dominated by the United States. Even beyond the Middle East, Iran feels more drawn to states that share its anti-imperialist and anti-American mindset. For instance, it has good relations with countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, and possibly even North Korea.

Yet history demonstrates that every time a power challenges the established order, be it at the regional or international level, the system reacts and tries either to contain or destroy it. This happened to Napoleonic France, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union. Part of all strategies of containment and/or destruction involves starving the challenger of the economic and military instruments that could enable it to carry out its designs.

Iran’s challenge to the established order, although mostly rhetorical, is best reflected in its desire to undermine and, if possible, end the U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. Given that the Persian Gulf’s energy resources are still of great importance to the Western World, if not to the U.S. itself, Iran’s demand that the U.S. and its European allies end their military presence in the Persian Gulf is a nonstarter. Even the Shah, who was a pro-Western monarch, paid a heavy price for constantly repeating the mantra that “the security of the Persian Gulf should be the responsibility of the riparian states.” This attitude proved unrealistic. The Islamic Republic has amplified this unrealism.

Iran’s Challenge to Israel

Iran has also openly challenged the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state. There is no way that Iran can actually pose a credible threat to Israel’s security, let alone survival. However, states cannot take risks with their survival and thus Israel often treats Iran’s verbal bravado as a real threat. Therefore, the Israeli government does whatever it takes to convince the West and others to pressure and weaken Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has openly taken credit for convincing president Trump to withdraw from the JCPOA.

Meanwhile, for moral and other well-known reasons, the United States, Europe, and even Russia and China, cannot endorse this Iranian approach. Even Arab states, including Iran’s supposed ally Syria, do not share Iran’s perspective on Israel. They might haggle over the perimeters of a fair settlement to the Arab-Israeli dispute, but none questions the reality that Israel is now part of the Middle East and has a right to exist.

Gulf Arabs

Iran has also posed a security challenge to Gulf Arab states by rhetorically questioning their legitimacy and, at times, through subversion. These states, too, are important for the West as well as Russia and China. When Iran threatens their security it also endangers the interests of great powers. Iran’s threat to the Gulf Arabs has never been as serious as it has been made to appear, especially in the last two decades. Nevertheless, since most of these states—with the exception of Saudi Arabia—are small, they have a perennial fear of Iran. Iran’s rhetoric has intensified their fears.

It is in this context that Iran’s nuclear and missile programs are viewed. If Iran did not challenge the United States; threaten, albeit mostly verbally, Israel; and challenge the Gulf states, its defensive measures such as missiles and a peaceful nuclear program would be viewed with less alarm. The U.S. does not view Pakistan’s nuclear weapons with alarm because Pakistan does not challenge U.S. interests or threaten the Gulf states, and it is not involved in the Palestine issue.

Iran’s Need for a New Framework

In view of the realities of international power and the sharp differences between Iran’s priorities and those of other key players, Iran cannot expect to come out of its current predicament unless it drastically changes its foreign policy priorities.

Iran must realize that there is no way it can win its so-called anti-imperialist struggle. Nor can it liberate Palestine and dissolve Israel. If it persists in this direction, sooner or later it will bring serious economic and even military calamity upon itself.

To achieve a shift in its foreign policy, Iranian leaders must move beyond the revolutionary framework as the basis of their legitimacy. They should replace anti-imperial struggle and Palestinian liberation with ensuring Iran’s survival, its territorial integrity, and its economic and social development. They also must realize that independence does not mean self-isolation. No country, no matter how powerful, is totally independent, especially in a globalized age.

If the Iranian leadership, but most importantly Iranian hardliners, could make this shift, then most problems between Iran and the U.S.—and Europe as well—including nuclear- and missile-related issues, would become manageable. Otherwise, Iran could slide towards a military conflict or a long and painful period of economic, social, and possibly political unravelling since it is very unlikely that the Trump administration will relent in its policy of maximum pressure on Tehran. The sooner Iran makes this change the better.

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 other words, Iran should surrender. Did Mossadegh threaten Gulf states (most were not even around at the time) or Israel? See what happened to him. Ms. Hunter. Accept Israel as a Jewish state? You mean accept legitimacy of an expansionist, apartheid and the “aircraft carrier” for USA? No, madame, thank you for your advice. I would say, sell your goods elsewhere. I am not a fan of human rights record of the Islamic Republic but its policy of resistance despite what you call rhetoric and at times self-serving is supported by many people in ME.

  2. You are asking the barbaric Islamic system to stop being a barbaric Islamic system! If you study their overall strategy, their goal is not to fight imperialism; their goal is to spread their own version of Islam by any means. This is the issue that the west doesn’t get it. They don’t care for Iran and Iranian people. They prolonged the fight with Iraq without worrying about its human and financial cost on Iran. Please look into their investments in all the moslem orgs around the world that agrees with their version of Islam. Islam is the fastest growing religion in EU and in the US. Do you think this is an accident?!
    That is one of the main reasons that U.K. is getting out of EU. To limit and manage the expansion of islamists in their country. While US and EU are busy discussing the nuclear power, they are building mosques in all the major and small cities. Please look into the bigger issues and let’s not repeat the same old stuff over and over again.


    In so far as the Western Civilization is the dominant civilization on Earth – and in the minds of its own members, the only civilization worthy of that name – Iran is and will be one barbaric country among many – such as India or China.

    However, this Barbaric Islamic System, has grown and expanded since its inception, and has attracted to itself like-minded barbaric people in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Syria, and in Lebanon.

    Perhaps that is because the Barbaric Islamic System, to this date, has been the most successful and rational Muslim response to the world that has been created by the Western Christians.

    Furthermore, this very same Barbaric Islamic System has been able to safeguard the interests of the – as you imply – Barbaric Muslim people across multiple countries; among those interests one being able to live in physical security rather than being slaughtered by Barbaric Sunni Muslims.

    I should then like to think that the Barbaric Islamic System has been a rather successful one, and the opposition to it – by the Civilized Western Christians and Barbaric Sunni Muslims that represent, at best, a creole civilization (Haiti, Senegal), and at worst a dying civilization (pre-revolutionary China) – has been failure.

    Let us admit the empirical fact that the Barbaric Islamic Iran is the only sovereign state – in the true sense of the word – between Hindu Kush and the Mediterranean Sea and the only such Muslim state in existence today.

    May be that is the reason that the Western Christians want to destroy it.

    Yours truly,
    Johnny Barbar


    Yup: Arbenz, Allende, Ho Chi Minh, Castro, Rafsanjani – always the same story.

  5. Talking about the Ayatollahs requires authors to refer to the Ayatollahs, not to Iran. Can we get this simple matter right. That way the principles for Iran, do not get confused with the principles for Ayatollahs.

    Imagine Iran was invaded by Ayatollahs, then you would not call that regime Iran would you?

    So let’s get the basics right and the rest falls in place perfectly.

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