By Shireen T. Hunter (source: LobeLog)
The worsening relations between the United States and Iran since the election of Donald Trump reached a fever pitch with the president's speech at the UN General Assembly and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's response to it.
President Trump's harsh speech included a range of accusations against Iran. Most of these accusations were either unfounded or only partially true. President Rouhani for his part did not mince words and declared President Trump's speech unworthy of the UNGA. Other Iranian politicians and commentators were much less polite in characterizing Trump's speech.
Trump's approach towards Iran has been unwise, imprudent, and counterproductive, beginning with his frequent hints that Iran has not abided by the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The Trump administration has also made continual threats to withdraw from the JCPOA, has imposed new sanctions on Iran, and has even hinted at possible military action against the country.
These policies have increased the risk of a full-scale conflict between Iran and America, whether by accident or by design, with heavy costs for both sides. The US would not likely emerge unscathed from such a conflict, but the biggest loser would be Iran. In fact, should it occur, a military confrontation with the US could set in motion dynamics that could threaten Iran's territorial integrity and its survival within its current borders. The experience of Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and even Syria serve as warning to the Iranian leadership about what could happen to their own country.
Therefore, it is up to the Iranian leadership, especially Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to avert such a potential disaster. To do so, Iran needs to adopt a nationally focused and realistic, instead of ideological and Islamist, foreign policy.
What Iran Must Change
After taking a hard and realistic look at the country's assets and liabilities and economic and military capabilities, Iran must develop a vision of its regional and international roles and functions that's commensurate with its capabilities. Thus far, Iran's exaggeration of its power has only enabled its enemies and competitors to generate international opposition to it.
In particular, the Iranian leadership must rid itself of the illusion that a spirit of Ashouraei-referring to Hussein's martyrdom 1,400 years ago-can compensate for the lack of modern weaponry, especially adequate air force, air defense systems, and naval power. The Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) seems to believe that it can engage the United States in a long and debilitating war by resorting to asymmetrical warfare. But such a war will also exhaust Iran and exacerbate its many problems.
Moreover, the idea that Iran should confront America in the Middle East and beyond, especially on issues that do not relate to its own immediate security and other national interests, defies reason and prudence. So far, this policy has only resulted in Iran essentially paying tribute to even its smallest neighbors. All of them, from Pakistan to Turkmenistan, have used Iran's problems with America to extract concessions from Tehran. Oddly enough, the same Iranian leadership that considers talking to America below Iran's national dignity remained silent when Turkey's president openly insulted Iran and Iranians, and the Saudi monarch called Iran a snake whose head should be cut off.
The Iranian leadership must prioritize Iran's survival over any other ideological goals, such as liberating Palestine and Jerusalem or fighting international imperialism. In other words, they must act as the leaders of a nation, not a universalist revolution or a crusade for a cause. Most, if not all, of Iran's problems have resulted from this ideological aspect of its behavior and the lack of sufficient commitment to Iran's national interests. They have persisted in this behavior even though they have paid a heavy price for it. Ironically, this ideological behavior has been limited to the Palestinian issue and Israel. In other regions, from Afghanistan to the Caucasus, Iran has essentially followed a non-ideological approach.
But because of the centrality of the Palestinian issue in Middle East politics, Iran's ideological approach has cost it much. For example, despite spending money and sacrificing Iran's interests for the sake of Palestine and earning Israel's fierce enmity, Iran's leaders have never been able to count on Palestinian groups in a pinch. Now Iran risks becoming the sacrificial lamb at an Arab-Israeli feast. Yet, the Iranian leadership seems oblivious to these facts and risks.
In Syria, after having lost men and money, Iran is making sacrifices that ultimately benefit Russia. In Iraq, as a thank you for sheltering him, Shia leader Muqtada Sadr now pays court to Saudi Arabia. Another prominent Shia leader, Amar Hakim, whose father lived for years in exile in Iran, is also wooing the Saudis and other Arabs. The Iraqi government, meanwhile, puts up all sorts of barriers to Iran's economic and cultural interaction with the country and shows no flexibility on issues such as the dispute over navigation rights around Shat al Arab. This is not surprising: the Iraqi government and Iraqi activists are acting as nationalists while the mindset of Iran's leadership is Islamist, with Iran being only a useful instrument for advancing Islamist goals.
Iran cannot expect normal relations with the world while ignoring one of the most influential global players, the United State. It doesn't matter that Iran has pursued a more pragmatic and constructive approach in other parts of the globe. By going against international consensus on issues such as the Arab-Israeli conflict or the survival of Israel, Iran has gained little from its good behavior elsewhere. In fact, the single most important cause of the US-Iran dispute is the latter's attitude toward Israel.
Finally, Iran must realize that it cannot expect others, be it Europe, Russia, or China, to look after its interests. Only its leaders can do so provided that they put Iran and its interests ahead of some vague, unattainable Islamist and revolutionary objectives.
Clock Is Ticking
There is not much time left for Iran to change course. The last four decades have been lost years for Iran in terms of economic development. A country that was at the point of takeoff in 1979 now is behind many Asian and neighboring states, such as Turkey. Its best and the brightest are leaving whenever they get a chance and are enriching other countries.
In short, regardless of whether US remains in the JCPOA and/or adds new sanctions, Iran faces severe existential challenges, largely because of the ideological and Islamist character of its leadership. That includes problems caused by environmental degradation. Iran's resistance to asking advice from foreign experts has led to faulty engineering and other planning errors that have exacerbated its environmental problems, especially the shortage of water.
These problems and challenges, at home and abroad, will continue to mount as long as the Iranian leadership does not put Iran first and acts in a realistic fashion and in accordance with its capabilities and limitations. Iran cannot expect global cooperation even as it challenges the international system and its key actors.
About the Author:
Shireen T. Hunter is a Research Professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Her latest book is Iran Divided: Historic Roots of Iranian Debates on Identity, Culture, and Governance in the 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).
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