What Iran’s severe virus crisis might mean for its threat to the region
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What Iran’s severe virus crisis might mean for its threat to the region

With Islamic Republic suffering severe losses and under growing pressure amid the pandemic, leaders have worried observers by increasingly lashing out at perceived outside enemies

In this file photo released on May 22, 2019 by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks to a group of students in Tehran, Iran (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP, File)
In this file photo released on May 22, 2019 by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks to a group of students in Tehran, Iran (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP, File)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Iran by its own accounting is the fifth-ranked among nations in coronavirus fatalities. Outside experts say the rate is likely much higher.

The confluence of hard-hitting sanctions on the country and Iran’s floundering theocracy frustrated an adequate response to the pandemic, according to most accounts, but the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, knows who to blame: Genies. And Americans.

Khamenei’s March 22 speech marking Nowruz, the Persian New Year, has spooked regime watchers inside and outside the country. He blamed the pandemic on the demons identified in the Quran as “Jinn,” known as genies in Western lore, and the American intelligence services working in tandem.

“We have jinn and human enemies that help each other,” he said, according to a translation by Maryam Sinaiee, a British-Iranian political analyst writing for Radio Farda, the US government’s Persian language news service. “The intelligence services of many countries work together against us.”

Among these, he said, was the “most evil enemy of the Islamic Republic” — the United States.

It’s an alarming prospect: If Khamenei truly believes that the CIA is working hand in hand with demons to engage in biowarfare against Iran, he may see fit to respond in kind. And any response would likely bring in Israel, the closest American ally in the region.

In this photo released on March 20, 2020 by the official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei poses for a portrait prior to delivering his message for the Iranian New Year, or Nowruz, in Tehran, Iran (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

It’s a manifestation of what Ali Vaez, the Iran Project director for the International Crisis Group, called “crisis therapy.” Iran historically, faced with internal upheaval, creates an external crisis as a distraction.

“The reality is that a regime under siege from all sides and that has no exit ramp might calculate that it has little to lose and a confrontation with the US would be a good distraction,” Vaez told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Blaming other countries is not unique among leaders worldwide: Chinese media and officials also have insinuated that the virus is a means of US warfare. President Donald Trump frequently faults how China and Europe have handled the virus when he is under fire for how he has dealt with COVID-19.

The stakes are higher with Iran, given how besieged the regime is — a number of its leaders have contracted the virus and at least one has died — and the theocracy’s history of acting on the religious dictates of its leaders.

“The Iranians as a result of the combined impact of sanctions and the coronavirus are under tremendous economic duress,” Vaez said. “If they had any cushion that could keep them afloat until the US elections,” when Trump’s potential departure might ease sanctions pressure, “that has evaporated.”

Patrick Clawson, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy whose expertise is Iran, said the language was alarming enough that for a number of days, government sites posting the speech omitted the passage about jinn — suggesting that even officials close to the 80-year-old Khamenei felt it was prudent to obscure the comments.

People in protective clothing walk past rows of beds at a temporary 2,000-bed hospital for coronavirus patients set up by the Iranian army at the international exhibition center in northern Tehran, Iran, March 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

“Senior people in the IRGC,” the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, “were saying ‘This guy is our leader, is the old man losing it?’” Clawson said in an interview.

There was good reason to be spooked, Clawson said. The Nowruz speech is the equivalent of the State of the Union.

“This is the biggest speech of the year, this tells you what Iran is going to do for the next year,” he said.

Here are some takes on how Iran’s coronavirus-induced aggression might manifest, how it might not and what can be done to mitigate it.

Scenario 1: An Iranian response is happening now

Militias in Iraq aligned with Iran have attacked US targets in the country in recent weeks, including a rocket attack that killed two American soldiers. US officials are blaming Iran for the attacks.

“We’ve made clear that the Iraqi Shia militias are funded, trained and equipped by the Iranians,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier this month. “We’ve urged the Iranians not to do that.”

An assistant secretary of state, David Schenker, tied the attacks to the coronavirus.

“This is in fact not only an effort to have an impact on domestic politics in Iraq, but also to divert attention from the coronavirus both in Iraq and in Iran, where it’s being dramatically mishandled,” Schenker told reporters at a recent briefing.

Clawson has his doubts. The militias, he said, have minds of their own and are less likely to take orders from Iran since the United States assassinated a top IRGC general, Qassem Soleimani, earlier this year.

Fighters from the Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades militia, inspect the destruction at their headquarters in the aftermath of a US airstrike in Qaim, Iraq, December 30, 2019. (AP)

“Iranians have after Soleimani’s death lost control of those militias,” Clawson said. The militias “are in the teenage stage, they do what they want.”

The regional chaos that predated the virus also mitigates against immediate action. Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, for instance, is dealing with protests that aim in part to remove the militia from power.

Scenario 2: It happens later

Iran has played a long game historically when it retaliates for perceived aggression.

“I read the speech as implying that Iran should consider retaliating in kind with bioweapons,” Clawson said. “It would be months down the road, not days.”

The Nuclear Threat Initiative, a weapons of mass destruction watchdog, says there have not been definitive assessments recently that Iran has biological weapons, but it likely has the capability. Getting to actual weapons, and selecting an appropriate arena to make it clear that Iran is ready to use them, would take time.

Scenario 3: The US continues to squeeze Iran

The Trump administration has not relented in pressuring Iran with sanctions, imposing new ones this week on 20 companies and officials that it says are implicated in attacks on US targets in Iraq. The aim of what the Trump administration calls a “maximum pressure” policy is to get Iran to stand down from its adventurism, although it has yet to show substantial results.

Now is not the time to relieve those sanctions, according to hawkish critics of the regime, who note that Iran has rejected humanitarian assistance that is allowed under the sanctions. Iran has even expelled a mission by Doctors Without Borders, a group that was positioned to alleviate the impact of the virus, baselessly accusing the group of espionage.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news briefing at the State Department February 25, 2020 in Washington, DC (Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)

“The Iranian government had the power to curtail the virus, but instead they ignored the situation, lied to their people and exacerbated the situation to weaken the resolve of the international community to robustly implement sanctions,” David Ibsen, the president of United Against a Nuclear Iran, wrote in EuroNews. “Sanctions are not the villain in this regretful story.”

Scenario 4: The pandemic eases relations

Vaez and his Crisis Group colleague, Robert Malley, wrote recently in Foreign Policy that the coronavirus crisis could create an opportunity to deflate tensions between the United States and Iran.

“Both Washington and Tehran have floated ideas” related to the pandemic “that, if acted upon, could break the current vicious cycle,” they wrote.

They cite Washington’s demand that Iran release foreign prisoners susceptible to the spread of the virus, and Iran’s bid for an International Monetary Fund loan to buy equipment to tackle the virus.

Were Iran to release the prisoners, and the United States to refrain from blocking the IMF loan, that could set in motion a dynamic that could lead to more expansive backdowns affecting sanctions and Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, Vaez and Malley say.

An Iranian woman wearing a protective face mask chooses traditional items ahead of Nowruz, the national New Year 2-week celebration, at the Tajrish Bazaar in the capital Tehran on March 19, 2020, despite the heavy death toll due to infections by the novel coronavirus in the country (STR / AFP)

Vaez in the JTA interview said he was not optimistic the sides would take that path.

“The reality is that this crisis is also a diplomatic opportunity, but all the indicators are now in the opposite direction,” he said. ”It seems Iran and the United States are on a collision course rather than using this crisis as an opportunity to reduce tensions.”

Mark Dubowitz, the CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, said Iran’s trajectory has been for decades to accelerate and expand its malign activity outside its borders, and that a crisis was only exacerbating those tendencies.

“They’re becoming more desperate to try to strengthen and stabilize a regime that is in the throes of dissolution that looks to be entering a period of significant risk to its survival,” he said in an interview.

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