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. You might be right, but all depends on the Cost and Timing,

    I agree, the truth will always prevails but at what cost and when ??? Are we going to see the light in our lifetime, our children’s lifetime, in 100 years, or yet in 1350 years like the Battle of Karbala where Imam Hussain has been murdered by Yazid, who seems reincarnated in MBS – Muhammad Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, or the Jesus of Nazareth who has been betrayed by Judas the Jew who seems reincarnated in Benjamin Natayahu of Israel.

    In both instances justice didn’t prevail yet; the Jews are still around and keep doing it to everyone and prospering – and Yazid has been re-incarnated in MBS is flexing his muscles in Saudi Arabia.

    The truth will always prevails, alright, but we are a nation not a bunch of religious fatalists who yearn to become martyrs of the Shia or Christian legacy. People of Iran aren’t a bunch of fatalists martyrs but parents of families who hope to see their children grow in certainty and security, in peace and prosperity.

  2. Iran has many faulty policies so do other nations. Everything said about its policies towards/against its Arab neighbours is not true. Iran wants to live in peace with the west and neighbours but these are the same countries that are afraid of Iranian resurgence and suspicious of its intentions. Mr. Fahad made very erroneous claim that Irani leadership wants to spread the Shia version of the Islam in the Middle East which is contrary to what Sunni Arab countries, especially Saudi Ara is has been doing for decades…..spreading Sunni version of Islan around the globe by funding madrassas that teaches extremely conservative Islam. As for the west, they are there to control resources and protect Israeli interests. To them nothing makes difference as long as the have control over Middle Eastern resources…..Shia and Sunni conflict is desirable but not important to west when it comes to control over resources.

  3. There might be a case for Iran to modify and/or changer some of its policies vis-à-vis the region and/or the international order. But to suggest that this would resolve its problems with the US is incorrect. Reza Shah had none of these policies. He was pro west, secular, pro Jewish (Israel did not exist in his time). Indeed his government rescued many Jews from the Hitler’s gas chambers by issuing them with Iranian passports/visas. And although Iran was neutral in WWII, Reza Shah’s government was violently overthrown by a preemptive allied invasion (the only neutral country to be invaded by the allies in WWII). The government of Dr Mossadegh which happened to be secular, pro west and pro-Israel was also violently overthrown by the west (this time in a coup). Both of these actions were taken based on the flimsiest excuses which frankly do not hold water. In 2003 Iran did offer a grand bargain to the Bush Jr.’s administration. It was rejected.
    So the history tells us that Iran’s policies and/or the nature of Iran’s government and behavior may have little effect on the actions of the west.
    True forty years ago during the cold war, Iran could have played its hand better. But that time has now passed.
    Also to put recent history aside, we can see that present events unfolding now show us that the western’s actions have little to do with these. Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Venezuela, Cuba, Saudi Arabia etc. show us that the west does things based on narrow commercial interests it may perceive at the time alongside narrow internal reasons and not based on any principled approach based on logic or self-interest. In this sense the situation is similar to the 18th and early 19th century period of European colonialism. So when people like Francis Fukuyama were talking about the resumption of history, this is what they meant. As for Pakistan and Turkey, they are not perceived as a threat yet. They are not in their way yet. Although Turkey is having its own problems and Pakistan spends close to 50% of its GDP on defense related issues and Pakistani territory is frequently witness to both great violence and US (drone) attacks.
    Also the international order is changing and the US centric world view is being challenged by more than just Iran.
    So in conclusion, it would be foolish of Iran to either reduce its missile and/or other military capabilities in a hope that others would behave or to simply abandon a few regional allies it has in a hope that it would find others.
    By holding firm while exercising moderation and attempting to talk to the west and by moderating it’s more bellicose rhetoric it may succeed.
    Perhaps the problem may be that a unified approach combining self-interest with a principled rational methodology which takes into account strategic and military as well as geographical and historical realities have not been considered. Dr Hunter’s approach is strong in the “self-interest with a principled rational methodology” and diplomacy part of the equation but leaves something to be desired in the strategic and military and other parts.
    Nonetheless it is a positive contribution towards solving the problems.


    War has been brought to Iran and her population as well as allied people.

    Short of Iranians as well as the Shia committing suicide, the schism between them and the non-Iranian Sunnis – be they Arab or Pakistani or Turk – will persist.

    Resistance is the only choice for the Party of Ali.

    Keep in mind, these wars – if the Party of Ali survives them – is only making them stronger.

  5. SE1

    I disagree with “… west does things based on narrow commercial interests..” –

    Americans, in 2002, having secured Afghanistan and installed a new government there with the help of Iran, could have gone home. They could have left a small contingent of US Special Forces and Air Force for conduction anti-terrorism operations against extremists there.

    But that is not what they did – they declared enemies of Israel to be the enemies of the United States and proceeded to destroy Iraq & Libya. They did their best to destroy Syria together with Arabs and Turks and most recently broke their cease-fire deal with Iran to destroy yet another enemy of Israel.

    Until and unless Americans Protestants give up on this project, the Party of Ali and other enemies of Israel will be facing the same situation.

    Americans have no positive future for the Middle East except more war and destruction to secure Israel – that is the sum total of their policies at the moment.

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