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.

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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. General Soleimani is not threatening war with the U.S. he is only stating that it would be costly for the U.S. to start one. He is in charge of the main part of Iran’s armed forces, it is his job to defend Iran. Since Iran has acquiesced in the boat duel in the Persian Gulf, he doesn’t want that action to be interpreted as fear so I suppose he thought he had to growl a bit to compensate.

    I don’t know if he told us anything new, by trying to read in between the lines. I got the impression he was implying that there were sleeper cells in the U.S which quite frankly, would make us more, not less belligerent. Others thought he was implying that he might get some advanced weapons from Russia and China in the event of a conflict but that would be a stretch.

  2. please stop this anti-Iran propaganda by this ex-monarchist-turned-analyst. Atrocious apportionment of blame on Iran every way you look at it. The title itself is so misleading: it’s the US’s unrealistic regime change and economic warfare that is landing the US in a war with Iran. Hunter is on US payroll to continue the crusade against the Iranian Islamists under the veneer of objectivity she spits venom at them at every opportunity.

  3. I stopped reading Hunter a long time she is so predictable and never has any useful insight. Sadly she thinks her distorted thoughts are worth anything but clearly they are not and by chance I read this piece and immediately regretted that I bothered.

  4. Ms Hunter, with all due respect your article reveals a new angle of your views on the US-Iran relationship. And that is that your views are lining up with those of Ali Mostofi’s and Mariam Rajavi’s which is very sad and disheartening to say the least. I’m hoping that you will further clarify your views in the near future.

  5. Right now Kim looks way smarter than Rouhani. They say Iran is where chess was invented but they just gave up a great opportunity at checkmate. Trump’s offer said with “no preconditions”. I don’t care what the rest of the White House tried to insert in that but Rouhani should have taken him up on the no precondition offer. Maybe Trump was trying to win brownie points by showing the world that he made a genuine effort for peace, for what it is worth. So what is there to lose on the Iranian side by just talking? You can always ask him to his face why Iran should trust anything that he might offer since the next administration could just do what he did. He might be harsh and read out the riot act but I would think that Rouhani would be well prepared to counter any of his arguments and make him understand their side.
    Europe isn’t going to do anything. China and Russia are both going to use Iran as a bargaining chip to their advantage. You saw Lavrov rush to Israel to cut a deal as soon as the Helsinki meeting was over. Turkey wants to have a meeting with France, Germany and Russia about Syria!
    I think the advantages to a talk outweigh any negatives. Sad but Iran just put their own preconditions to any talks.
    No word from Khamenei, who wants to just sit back and claim later that he told you so — whichever way the chips fall. So must for a leader!

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