The Looming War and Tehran’s Ostrich Politics


by Shireen T. Hunter                   

Last week, tensions between Iran and the United States reached even more alarming levels. First, Iran’s  Supreme Leader admonished Iranians that since the enemy—read America—is in war mode, Iran, too, should prepare for war (Arayesh Jangi Begirad). Then there was the news of the U.S. aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln going to the Middle East, ostensibly because of threats posed by Iran. According to some reports, this move was triggered by intelligence that Iran was moving missiles to the Persian Gulf.

In response, in a calculated step-by-step escalation, Iran declared that it will not abide by some of its obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), although during a visit to Moscow Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that Iran will not leave the nuclear deal. Other officials in Tehran however, indicated that Iran is mulling over what its next step should be and that exiting the agreement is one possibility. Tehran gave Europe 60 days to live up to at least part of its commitments under the JCPOA by facilitating trade and banking operations.

Whether in response to Iran’s move or separate from it, Washington imposed new sanctions on a range of Iran’s steel, copper, and Iron industries, which directly or indirectly employ a large number of Iranians. In addition to eating into Iran’s foreign exchange earnings  by exacerbating Iran’s employment problems, these sanctions could potentially lead to social turmoil. Already, Iran is not able to access a significant part of its non-oil export earnings because of banking and other restrictions. A few week ago, Iran’s minister of industries said that, out of $30 billion of non-oil exports, Iran has been able only to access $10 billion.

Dangerous Illusions

Despite increasing pressures and threats, there is no indication from various Iranian media sources and statements by Iranian officials that Tehran is fully aware of the risks involved in its brinkmanship and tit-for-tat policy with Washington. Iranian authorities still apparently believe that President Trump does not want to become engaged in a war with Iran, and that only National Security Advisor John Bolton and perhaps also Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are pushing him in that direction.

This assumption may turn out to be true. But there is also at least equal and perhaps even more chance that it might not be. Let’s not forget that many Iranians rooted for Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. Parroting what they read in Western news sites, they believed that, being a businessman, Trump wanted a deal with Iran. They did not realize that even someone as powerful as the American president cannot do everything that he or she wants. There are the demands of America’s strategic interests, domestic politics, and the wishes and demands of its regional allies.

Iran’s problems with America have structural and ideological sources: without addressing these issues and reaching some compromise, change in the in U.S. presidency would not resolve U.S.-Iran differences, although ad hoc agreements under certain conditions are possible. Had Hillary Clinton being elected in 2016, she most likely would have hardened U.S. policy towards Iran, even if she would not have withdrawn from the JCPOA. Let’s not forget that it was Clinton who worked to impose “crippling sanctions” on Iran and prevented an early agreement on its nuclear dossier by opposing the deal mediated by Turkey and Brazil in 2010. It was also she who threatened Iran with obliteration if it attacked Israel. American reaction to Iran’s nuclear ambitions have always been a symptom of their other differences, especially regarding Israel and America’s Arab allies. Even under Barack Obama, the signing of the JCPOA did not result in a marked improvement in bilateral relations. These facts are unlikely to change regardless of whoever is elected president in 2020.

Despite this history, Tehran is still hanging its hopes on Trump’s aversion to war and, failing that, his defeat in 2020. Yet, the United States would not advertise in advance any attack on Iran. Washington is adopting a strategy of unpredictability towards its enemies and rivals. This strategy will apply most of all to Iran.

Thus, war could occur as a result of either Tehran’s nerves giving way and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) doing something stupid, triggering an American response, a false flag operation by Iran’s regional rivals, or by a U.S. surprise attack. Iranians are also calculating that they could cause enough harm to Americans, which will force them an end to the war. They base this assumption on America’s desire to reduce its military engagements in the Middle East, plus popular opposition in America to another Middle East war. But Iranian leaders do not realize that sharply reducing or eliminating Iran’s military and economic power is deemed necessary for an eventual reduction of U.S. military presence in the Middle East. America is unlikely to leave the Middle East and allow Iran to fill the vacuum left by its departure.

Potential Losses for Iran and America

Another dangerous misconception in Tehran is that America, having spent trillions of dollars on war over the last 15 years and suffered significant human loss, would find the cost of war with Iran prohibitive. But this ignores the fact that a war with Iran will not resemble those in Afghanistan or Iraq. Today, Washington does not want to do the nation-building or democracy promotion it proclaimed for Afghanistan and Iraq. It wants is to eliminate any regional rivals and enemies, which it can do with a massive air war that destroys Iran’s military, economic, and infrastructural capabilities. It would limit its occupation of Iran to some of its Persian Gulf ports. No doubt, America, too, would have to pay a price, even a heavy price, but nothing compared to what Iran would pay. Fighting an asymmetric and attritional war as the Viet Cong did also would not be easy. During the Vietnam war, the USSR and China helped the North Vietnamese. It is highly unlikely that any outsider would similarly help Iran. Local states, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, would also be adversely affected. But Iran would still be the biggest loser.

According to some estimates, it could take Iran 40 years to recover from damage done by a potential American attack. This is assuming that the country will survive and will not be torn apart by a civil war, encouraged by its regional rivals and enemies. Thirty years after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Khuzestan province, which bore the brunt of the war. has not recovered from the damage it suffered.

Unfortunately, many Western commentators tend to encourage Tehran’s ostrich-like attitude. Sitting comfortably away from the scene of potential battle, they keep saying how damaging a war with Iran would be for America or that Iran is not Iraq. But let’s see what happened to Iraq. It lost several hundred thousand people, suffered a devastating civil war, its ethnic and religious fissures grew deeper, and it remains de facto divided. Or look at Afghanistan. It is still mired in a seemingly endless war, and the dreaded Taliban have made a serious comeback, which threatens to undo all Afghan gains. Meanwhile, the U.S. economy is humming and its human losses, although lamentable, have not been anything like what those two countries have suffered.

At the moment, U.S.-Iran relations resemble a classic Greek tragedy. Both sides seem to be moved by uncontrollable passions and excessive pride toward a precipice while the rest of the world hopes for the best but fears the worst. Yet, this is real life, not a myth, and the fate of millions of Iranians is at stake. Therefore, silence and inaction are inexcusable. All who have a sway in Tehran and Washington must do what they can to stop this march towards war. One first step would be to stop feeding Iran’s illusions of its own abilities and American vulnerabilities in an eventual war.

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. I have said this before and I still do that Rohani should have a meeting with Trump, one on one. Trump made the offer of a call so accept it. What is the worse than can happen? He lectures Rohani and the meeting ends. Rohani should be smart enough to counter his arguments.
    Trump’s one objective is to undo anything associated with Obama and claim to get a better deal in his name. Play to his ego. Many will say what is the use he will renege, well do you have a better solution than going to war? A dialog may push back the threat of war that the B team is creating. Just look at North Korea, they bought time even though both sides could not come to an agreement.
    Iran cannot win by just sitting there claiming a higher moral ground. No airforce, had a hard time beating back ISIS in Mosul. Has any other country come to its aid so far? Russia, China, India and the EU are just fair weather friends.

  2. Well it’s obvious that since the moment the Shah was removed, USA was never going to be content to see the Islamic republic prosper or thrive. But the mullahs with their Shariat Islam have caused a fracture in Iranian society and I don’t think it’s going to be too much trouble with the Iranian people, once the Islamic Government has been defeated. Iranians are bursting with impatience for freedom from Shariat law. If deliverance comes from Donald Trump, so be it.

  3. This was one of the better articles from Dr. Hunter. She is right that Iranians shouldn’t base their strategy on assuming Trump wants to avoid war. What she doesn’t say is that the only way Iran can be secure is by properly arming herself!

  4. What is Iran supposed to do exactly? The United States is not threatening war because of actions taken by Iran. This is a case of one-sided aggression. This entire spectacle is Made in the USA (and Israel) and there is nothing the Iranian regime can do to satisfy the aggressors except dissolve itself and let Iran be made into a subjugated vassal state, as it was before 1979…and even that is no guarantee.

    The only language the United States understands is brute force. It does not negotiate in good faith and a signed international agreement made with it can be torn up at any time and isnt worth the paper it is written on. If Iran had a nuclear weapons program it would be a lot safer than it is today. Look at what happened when Libya met all the demands of the “international community”: it was destroyed as a nation and its leader lynched and murdered.

    Iran is backed into a corner and admonishing its leadership as if the actions of the madmen in Washington are based on how they respond to American aggression is strange. Could Saddam Hussein have avoided the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq by changing his rhetoric? Exactly.

  5. A lucid and realistic analysis of a conflict . The Fact is that the war will not have any winner but a bilateral losing. The adminstration in the white house is a war administration both in internal and international affairs.the WH administration has not shown any sign of capacity and competent in international relations.

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