Image credit: © Oliver Schopf,

Iran’s official policy is the elimination of the Jewish state of Israel, and the hard-liners are determined to develop nuclear weapons capabilities to achieve it.

The United States needs to reconsider its approach to Iran, or at least re-visit with fresh thinking the playbook that President Trump put in place during his administration.

Iran has been under various forms of U.S.-led economic sanctions for most of the nearly 45 years since 1979. That year, the hardline Islamic cleric Ayatollah Khomeini directed a revolutionary movement to overthrow the secular government led by the U.S.-allied Shah of Iran. Radical religious students loyal to Khomeini stormed the U.S. embassy, an act of war, and held more than 50 Americans hostage for well over a year.

President-elect Ronald Reagan worked behind the scenes to negotiate their freedom. President Reagan, as well as every successive U.S. administration, believed that economic pressure and diplomatic isolation would be enough to break the will of Iran and, eventually, bring about regime change. These expectations have proven unrealistic.

Revolutionary Iran is a theocracy. Since the revolution, Iran has essentially had two parallel powers living together in uneasy tension: the elected officials of the government, and the “parallel state” of clerics and religious leaders subject to one supreme leader, now Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in power since the death of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989.

Over the past forty years, elected governments tried to move the state in a more open and liberal direction. Each time, Khamenei, the hardline clerics, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), pushed back, sometimes violently, to retain their power and the radical policies of the Islamic government. Iran’s official policy is the elimination of the Jewish state of Israel, and the hard-liners are determined to develop nuclear weapons capabilities to achieve this and other goals.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was the Obama-era agreement entered into in 2015 in which Iran agreed to stop development of its nuclear capability, allow international monitoring, disgorge its uranium stockpile, and limit its enrichment capacity, in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Hard-liners argued that Iran gained nothing from abandoning its nuclear ambitions.

Iran never complied with the agreement and failed to allow international monitoring. Yet the Iranian government—which vehemently hates America and its ideals—nonetheless benefited from $2.7 billion in secret cash payments from the Obama administration, alongside $150 billion in sanctions relief. Rather than complying with the agreement, the Iranian government yielded to the religious hardliners and increased its belligerency and active support of hostile proxy forces in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Gaza, each acting against U.S. and Israeli installations and interests in the region.

President Trump exited JCPOA in 2018, calling it “the worst deal ever negotiated,” a lopsided and ineffective agreement ignored by the Iranians. Trump reimposed heavy sanctions that had an immediate and devastating effect on the Iranian economy. Between 2017 and 2019, Iran’s annual inflation spiked to above 30%, the official unemployment rate hit double digits, and the poverty rate more than doubled. Yet the Islamic regime endured.

During this time, President Trump took targeted military action against the Islamic Republic by taking out General Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite al-Quds (Jerusalem) Force, and provided tacit support for Israel’s sabotage against Iran’s nuclear facilities and its assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the head of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

While sanctions were effective in isolating Iran and reducing the economy to rubble, they embittered the leaders and citizens of Iran. Iranian resolve has hardened to resist what they see as America’s objective: to destabilize the regime and destroy the country. More than anything, the sanctions and military strikes emboldened the radicals’ anti-American stance, which won additional support from moderates within the country. Since 2019, the IRGC has carried out multiple brazen attacks against U.S. and allied military and economic infrastructure in the region, including an oil-processing facility in Saudi Arabia. The Biden administration has been ineffective in countering these terrorist activities.

As a result, Iran, only a generation ago one of the US’s staunchest allies, has increasingly pivoted away from the West, and turned to more sympathetic allies in China and Russia. Never mind that these two are atheistic and Christian nations, respectively, and thus enemies of Islam; they are pragmatic alternatives to the Great Satan of the U.S. and the Little Satan of Israel. Iran is seeking to build economic ties with forces antagonistic to the West and to increase its existing political and economic influence over the Middle East by supporting forces hostile to the U.S. and Israel.

While previous administrations made attempts at diplomatic overtures to America and the West, the new government, and its newly elected president, Ebrahim Raisi, who took power in 2021, has no illusions of—and no mandate for—beneficial engagement with the U.S. The administrative power of the government has been consolidated under the theocratic rule of supreme leader Khamenei.

One of Raisi’s objectives is to make Iran “sanction-proof,” by building the domestic economy, further strengthening Iran’s military capabilities, shifting its economic links away from the West, and by greater regional economic influence and trade. His administration seeks to strengthen economic and security ties with Russia and China. For example, Iran signed a 25-year trade and military cooperation partnership with China, and has been supplying Russia with drones, armaments, and other supplies for its war in Ukraine.

The lesson from this experience is that hard power application of economic sanctions against Iran, just as the military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, was insufficient by itself to bring about sustainable political and social change. Beating our enemies into submission is much more difficult than the foreign policy establishment and Neocons admit.

The danger embedded in Iranian Shi’a theocracy is an apocalyptic belief that conflict with Israel is not only inevitable but necessary to reveal the Mahdi—the twelfth and Final Imam, second in rank only to Mohammed—who will destroy the Antichrist (the Al-Masīh Ad-Dajjāl, the “deceitful messiah”) and the Jewish state which follows him, control Jerusalem, and usher in the era of global Islamic domination. Without understanding this, the secular West will remain blind to Iranian motivations and determination to wage holy war on the infidels. And until the Iranian apocalyptists are removed from power, we will have no peace.

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