Unrealism Risks Landing Iran in War with America

Qasem Soleimani (Wikimedia Commons)

by Shireen T. Hunter   

In the last several weeks, the war of words between Iran and the United States has become alarmingly acrimonious. First, President Hassan Rouhani warned Washington that war with Iran would be “ the mother of all wars.” In response, President Trump tweeted that, if it continued to threaten America, Iran would face consequences that few countries have faced in the course of history. The tone of the exchanges became even harsher when Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Major General Qasem Soleimani taunted the US president by saying that he was ready for an American attack. He added that America should talk to him and not to Rouhani, thus suggesting that the IRGC currently believes that it’s making foreign policy in Iran.

Soleimani’s words reflect a worrying lack of realism and wishful thinking on his part. For example, he warned that the IRGC and its regional allies could target US interests in the Middle East and elsewhere. True, if it attacks Iran, the United States would expose its military forces and other installations in Middle East and in the Persian Gulf to retaliation. However, it is unclear to what degree Iran could count on its regional allies to participate in anti-US acts. In the past, Iraqi officials have said that Baghdad would remain neutral in an Iran-US encounter. In light of the rise of anti-Iran sentiments in Iraq and Baghdad’s natural desire to shield itself from any fallout from a US-Iran war, Tehran might not be able to count even on Baghdad’s neutrality in a confrontation with America. Syria, mired in its own problems, would not be much help either. Even Hezbollah would be unlikely to expose itself to Israeli, and possibly, US reprisals by carrying out attacks against American targets.

More fundamentally, whatever damage Iran might be able to inflict on the United States would pale in comparison to the havoc that an American air campaign would wreak on Iran. Soleimani referred to the U.S. defeats in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen. True, so far, the United States has not achieved all the goals it set out for itself in the Middle East when it invaded Iraq in 2003. But Soleimani failed to mention the magnitude of the devastation, death, and suffering that all these states have endured because of American military operations, while the United States has remained relatively unscathed. Nor did he mention that the future of these countries as unified and independent states is highly uncertain. By inviting an American attack, does he wish a similar fate for Iran? Soleimani also said that Iranians don’t fear America because they are ready for martyrdom (shahadat). However, it would be more accurate to say that Soleimani was volunteering Iranians for martyrdom without having consulted them.

All in all, Soleimani’s speech betrayed an unrealistic mindset and an inaccurate appraisal of Iran’s powers and America’s vulnerabilities. A streak of unrealism has existed in Iran’s foreign policy for the past 200 years. However, it has reached excessive levels under the Islamic Republic, particularly in its confrontation with America, its pretension to end the US presence in the Middle East, and its declared intention to liberate Palestine.

Soleimani’s speech also betrayed his and the Islamic Republic’s hurt pride. In view of President Trump’s intemperate and provocative remarks and US punitive policy towards Iran, this outburst is understandable to a degree. However, in an unequal contest, it does Iran no good to give in to emotional outbursts. Such venting of anger and frustration might provide temporary relief, but it only gives further ammunition to those in Washington who believe in the use of military force against Iran. Unfortunately, emotionalism, too, has long had adverse consequences for Iran’s national interests. Mohammad Mossadegh’s nationalization of Iranian oil in 1951 and the expulsion of the British from Iran might have provided brief emotional satisfaction. But it also paved the way for the 1953 coup d’état and disrupted the natural evolution of national politics. In the 1970s, the Shah’s unrealistic goals and his lecturing to Western countries caused a rupture in relations that contributed to the Islamic Revolution. After the 1979 revolution, taking American diplomats hostage might have satisfied the extremists’ desire for vengeance, but it has stymied Iran’s international relations ever since.

However, underlying General Soleimani’s outburst is the realization, even by Iran’s hardliners, that the Islamist experiment has failed, both domestically and internationally. Yet the hardliners are unable to accept this fact and to change their course. A necessary aspect of this change would be a better understanding and assessment of the regional and global power balance, which would necessitate a coming to terms with America. A first step would be to talk directly and officially to the US government . The argument that America cannot be trusted is only an excuse to avoid direct talks. Interstate relations are at best only partially based on trust. Even close allies do not trust each other 100 percent. Instead, such relations are based on calculations of power and interests, give-and-take and compromise. Less powerful states are often at a disadvantage in such dealings. But this is the nature of international politics. Moreover, at this juncture, for Iran the alternative to talking to America is more hardship and possibly war and devastation.

The lack of dialogue with America allows Iran’s enemies to set the agenda for US relations with Tehran. It also allows groups such the Mojahedin e Khalq (MEK) to portray themselves as the solution to Washington’s problems with Iran. By declaring that America should talk to him and not to President Rouhani, Soleimani has made clear who will make the destiny-defining decisions for Iran in the next weeks and months. Will the IRGC sacrifice Iran for the sake of its unrealistic and unrealizable goals just to inflict some damage on America and thus satisfy hurt pride? Or will it finally embark on a more realistic, non-emotional, and mature approach to relations with the outside world? After all, other revolutionary countries like China and Russia have put their national interests ahead of their ideological beliefs. The more the IRGC delays this necessary shift, the more painful it will become and the higher the price Iran will have to pay.

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. It seems to me that you miss the point of what Iran is attempting to do: out Trump Trump. Much of what the IRGC says is for domestic consumption and is in line with some of the oldest Iranian nationalists’ appeals that date back to at least the Qajars. Never, never, never forget that Iran has been picked apart or bullied by the Russians, the Ottomans, the British, and the Americans, You reap what you sow.

  2. The main source of funds is from China.

    China is Iran’s biggest trading partner, with two-way trade rising 19 per cent last year to US$37.2 billion.

    Once China realises that it can lose a lot of business with the US, the Ayatollah economy will self-destruct.

    As it is, the Ayatollahs are sanctioning Iranians. It is time they faced their epitaph. Look at the Rial. It won’t be long before the Ayatollahs will be running for cover.

    Meanwhile Iran’s underground economy has been bypassing the Ayatollah grip. It will keep Iran whilst these monsters are being defeated.

    It will not be easy. We all have to pray.

  3. The IRGC just understands that the Trump administration only respects strength. Over the last few months the Trump administration has made me understand the most vicious of hardliners because that is what Trump understands yes. But it is also what Trump secretly respects. Why do you think he admires such strongman dictators such as Putin or Dueterte? If Iran became docile in the face of United States threats that would only embolden the administration. They would see this as proof of the false narrative that the Middle East only stands to force and enough of it will force capitulation ala the Richard Perle school of thought. This isn’t unrealism, but it is rather true realism because realism understands the importance of power in negotiation. Negociating with a great power disparity is what has made Middle Easterners get chopped apart by the West for centuries. It’s how the Palestinians kept losing their land. It’s how Iran itself lost land to the Russians.

    Comparing Iran to China and Russia at this point is downright laughable. WHEN Iran becomes more like China or Russia it becomes a reasonable comparison because the United States had no choice but to deal with China and Russia on an equal playing field because of the sheer size of these powers.

    You portray this as an outburst but that is not what I saw. I saw a military man stating the fact that he is ready to defend his nation unlike some of the Uncle Tom Iranians would have him do rather waiting for their white saviors to come in and rape their country.

  4. Shireen Hunter is consistently off in another universe, so wrong in her opinions about the US and Iran, as other commenters have written. Let me add this. Shireen wrote: “A first step would be to talk directly and officially to the US government.” Iran did talk ‘directly and officially’ with the U.S. government, on an almost daily basis leading up to agreement on the JCPOA. Who doesn’t want to continue such talks-on-the-basis-of-equals? Oh, Shireen, you mean the Iranians should come crawling on their knees in response to Pompeo’s “gangster-like” list of demands? Do not hold your breath! I for one would be happy to see you change your focus to writing about, say, the Maldives or maybe Antarctica.

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