It is undeniable that the relations between two countries are tense to say the least. And it has been so for decades, sometimes it gets a bit better, only to sink even lower later on.

Why is Iranian regime so determined in its policy of unnerving the US and Israel (that alone can be rather unpleasant enemy) and keeping them irritated? All right, there are serious historical reason for this antagonism, that can be traced to times well before the Iran-Iraq war. However, many years have passed since then. The regime is quite well established and matured (or, at least, should be so). After all, the US removed Hussein, their mortal enemy and installed Shia's government. So there could be some room for improving the relations.

Iran possesses vast oil reserves (maybe, not the biggest in the World, but quite extensive ones nonetheless). Why don't they turn to selling oil like other OPEC countries and accumulate wealth (I know they do sell oil, but they could produce and sell even more without political pressure and constant talks about possible war)? Have those tension with the US been helping them to keep internal stability of the country and guarantee loyalty of the people? But increasing the standard of living of ordinary people would work even better, would it? Why to play risky and balance on edge of war, when you have obvious way to get rich peacefully?

  • 2
    I am curious at all the downvotes and close votes. What is the specific party the OP is supposedly trying to promote/discredit? Promote Iran? Discredit Iran? Certainly Iran's political leanings are well known, but their reasons for doing so are rather less obvious, just like the US's continued hostility towards Cuba might seem unexpected, esp considering its much better relations with Vietnam. Has this question been asked before and is a duplicate? This certainly doesn't come across as a welcoming from the SE.Po community towards a new user. May 12, 2020 at 15:46
  • 1
    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica - The word "risky" and its emphasis as given in a comment to BrianZ appears to be discrediting Iran. I held off until the referenced comment.
    – Rick Smith
    May 12, 2020 at 16:08
  • 3
    @RickSmith eh??? Iran's behavior is risky and not immediately conducive to a better outcome for its people. And they do a lot of things that don't seem constructive. Let's skip the US and Israel. Why did they target Iranian dissidents for assassination in Europe 2-3 years ago, even while they needed European support for continuing the nuclear deal.? What would you put in rather than "risky" to describe their behavior? And IF you downvoted and voted to close, why didn't you explain that to start with? May 12, 2020 at 16:12
  • 3
    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica - I'm not fond of the word "games", either. "Why does the Iranian government exhibit such confrontational behavior with the United States?" (or similar), I would find preferable. I did not down vote, only VTC for discredit. Other options were focus for too many questions or duplicate for some of the questions. Explanations for down votes or VTCs (other than duplicates) are not required.
    – Rick Smith
    May 12, 2020 at 16:43
  • 2
    @RickSmith: Or may think that the answers are likely to be mainly opinion-based on a rather vague and broad question (all three of which are good close reasons). One could ask exactly the same e.g. about Russia: why don't they get rich "peacefully" from their oil sales etc. May 13, 2020 at 14:51

3 Answers 3


Absent a significant external enemy, a Great Satan, the actual rulers of Iran, i.e. the folk who vet the acceptable candidates in elections, would struggle to justify:

  • limits on who can run for political offices. allowing normal elections would risk losing them.
  • the level of budgetary effort dedicated to the military, esp the Revolutionary Guards, who are key to maintaining the regime's power base
  • the level of economic austerity faced by the country. Remember that sanctions and trade limits can give opportunities to the well-connected, c.f. Venezuela.
  • continuing to pursue an A-bomb, which could very well be key to the regime's long term survival. Witness how North Korea can consider itself less at risk, purely on a military level.

Hostility towards Israel is probably considered key to motivating Sunni/Arab people to listen to Iran's Shia/Persian influence, over that of say Saudi Arabia Sunni/Arab leadership. In the past, they even collaborated instead.

Who knows, they may also believe in some of their own doctrine. Certainly, the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam do really dislike each other, and violently so in the last century. The US is aligned with Sunnis, especially Iran's loathed enemy, the Saudis.

And certainly too, ever since the embassy, the US has itself moved towards a fairly irrational position wrt to Iran, just as it has towards Cuba. Even without the current POTUS, there is very little reason to believe that better Iranian behavior would be rewarded with significant relaxation of the general web of constraints they've put against Iran.

Last, but not least, though the US considers itself the aggrieved party in all things Iran, their actual history in the country is a lot less rosy, starting with 1953's regime change and support for the Shah, who had a fairly nasty and torture-prone secret police.

  • The items of your list are summing up the current state of affairs. Were Iran inclined to ease tensions and choose profit for the country from selling more oil over the war rhetoric, there would be no need for political top to be afraid of future elections and maintain such a resource-consuming (para)military structures.
    – S. N.
    May 12, 2020 at 15:53
  • 1
    yes, but they might very well be voted out of office later on - running a normal demoracy, you would expect that to happen at some point and switch to alternating periods of being in power. right now, they can remain in power indefinitely. big difference. May 12, 2020 at 15:55
  • Please note that I don't mean the regime's top people to become altruists who want to make life of their people better. But they could trade this rather risky course for fair share of those profits plus political stability (why would any one want to vote out government that really make his life better? Is in Saudi Arabia a good example of such money-stabilised society?). After all, why desire for power can not co-exist with pragmatism?
    – S. N.
    May 12, 2020 at 15:56
  • 1
    if you have an counter for every answer, why did you bother asking this question? May 12, 2020 at 16:06
  • 2
    @S. N.: You forget that the people who actually rule Iran - the "Supreme Religious Council" - are not motivated by things like making life better for the majority of the people. They are motivated by religion.
    – jamesqf
    May 12, 2020 at 17:01

Here is a very recent report from the Congressional Research Service which gives a lot of detail on Iran's current policy inclinations. I haven't read it all but it gives a lot of concrete detail that seems relevant. The last section which I will quote below focuses on two different perspectives on the outlook moving forward. The first group argues that Iran will continue to be confrontational towards the United States. The second group suggests steps more in the direction you are suggesting.

Those who argue that Iran is an increasingly challenging regional actor maintain the following:

  • Iran is likely to continue to supply its regional allies and proxies with larger quantities of and more accurate weaponry, including short-range missiles.

  • Iran is likely to undertake additional actions in an effort to pressure the United States and its partners to ease sanctions.

  • Iran might establish a secure land corridor extending from Iran to Lebanon and in pressuring Israel from the Syrian border as well as the Lebanese border.

  • Iran has the potential to succeed in its efforts to compel Iraqi leaders to insist that all U.S. forces leave Iraq.

  • The lifting of the U.N. ban on arms sales to Iran in October 2020 will enable Iran to modernize its conventional armed forces.Various regional powers might establish or expand military cooperation with Iran, a development that could strengthen Iran’s conventional capabilities.

  • The victory of hardliners in the February 2019 parliamentary elections in Iran might prompt Iran to increase its challenges to U.S. policies and forces.

Some who take the view that the threat from Iran is being reduced argue the following:

  • Iran might be willing to negotiate a revised JCPOA that, among other provisions, limits Iran’s development of missiles.

  • Iran might be compelled or persuaded to curtail its delivery of additional long-range rockets or other military equipment to Hezbollah and Hamas, although Iran is unlikely under any circumstances to reduce its political support for Hezbollah.

  • Iran might support a political solution in Yemen yhat gives the Houthis less influence in a new government than they are demanding.

  • Iran and the UAE might resolve their territorial dispute.

  • Iran might seek to finalize regional economic projects, including development of oil and gas fields in the Caspian Sea; gas pipeline linkages between Iran and Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and Pakistan; and transportation routes to China.

  • Iran’s struggles with the health and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic could cause Iran to retrench its regional malign activities.

  • Domestic unrest might cause the regime to reduce the scope of its interventions, cut its defense budget, or limit its missile development program.

  • If unrest escalates dramatically and the regime loses power, Iran’s foreign policy could shift dramatically, likely becoming far more favorable to U.S. interests.

  • The departure from the scene of the Supreme Leader could change Iran’s foreign policy sharply, depending on the views of his successor.

  • Thank you! Well, these are two opposing views on how things might unfold in the future. However, while being interesting, it does not fully answers my question. Let me put emphasis on the word "risky". That is what puzzles me. There are countries pursuing their own goals that do not go along with desires of the Americans (for example, Turkey). There can be frictions, at times rhetoric, heated debates, but no one says they are balancing on the edge of war with the US. However, Iranians seem to make this policy systemic. And I don't understand why, given the fact they have ways to make money.
    – S. N.
    May 12, 2020 at 15:26
  • 2
    There is a lot of sheer inertia of history there. Turkey has never had the same level of animosity toward the US as Iran consistently has for decades. The question of risk is also relevant... The last time Iran tried to move in the direction of reconciliation, it made a deal with the US and then the US cancelled the deal. Why would they take their chances on that again? Many in Iran would probably say that's too risky.
    – Brian Z
    May 12, 2020 at 17:12
  • 1
    May I ask which deal you are referring to? I would like to read a bit more about that.
    – S. N.
    May 12, 2020 at 17:20
  • The JCPOA
    – Brian Z
    May 12, 2020 at 17:28

It doesn't pay off to be meek with US

First of all, it should be noted that Iran has long list of contentions and grievances vs US. It all started with 1953 coup orchestrated by US (and UK) which was followed by long rule of last Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Pahlavi is now considered to be corrupt and inefficient ruler, who gave Iranian oil and other resources to Western powers, spent money on extravagances and unnecessary Western weapons (for example F-14 Tomcat, very expensive aircraft at its time) while majority of Iranians languished in poverty. Anyway, Iranian Revolution of 1979 brought Shah down, Americans naturally were not amused, there was famous hostage crisis etc so relations between new Islamic Republic ans US got of to a bad start. Add to that new government disliked US policy towards Palestine and Israel (considering US to be under control of Zionists) , despised Gulf monarchies (Sunni, opposed to chiefly Shia Iran) for their servility towards US and fake outdoor piety (coupled with debauchery behind closed doors) and wanted to build new self-reliant society. Then Iran-Iraq war started, with Iraq getting lot of support from US, especially after 1982.

Anyway, with all this said and done, Iran considers US as its natural enemy, with irreconcilable differences, and a toxic influence in Middle East and whole world. Indeed, US is Great Satan, from its decadent culture to its aggressive foreign policy. Therefore, it is official goal of Iran, often stated publicly, to remove US from its neighborhood (Middle East).

Considering that Iran is not only enemy of US, it should be noted that Americans love to "bring democracy" and often use protest, coups, or outright military intervention to fulfill their strategic goals. In last few decades this happened lot of times - Iraq, Libya, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Ukraine, attempt in Syria, and numerous smaller interference all over the world. Most of the time, countries targeted by US attempted to negotiate, and US used foot in the door technique to impose its own interests and legitimize its presence. Iran therefore concluded it does not pay off to play nice with US, i.e. that US respects only raw power . Country must have capable military, and not be afraid to use it aggressively, not allowing US slightest incursion into its territory. Btw, North Korea has similar policy, and it was so far also successful for them, because it prevented US military intervention. Unlike North Korea, Iran has no nuclear weapons (at least officially) so they feel themselves more vulnerable and therefore they need to act more aggressively. Recent example was killing of General Soleimani - Iran responded with missile strikes on US airbase (something that much more powerful militaries would not attempt) in a clear example of escalate to deescalate strategy, which worked this time. So, as a conclusion, it is very unlikely that Iran will back-down and ease tensions with US, at least not until they acquire weapons of mass destruction and feel more confident US would not attempt to interfere in their internal matters.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .