COVID-19 and Iran: Dynamics, Implications and Future

As of 16 April 2020, total cases in Iran crossed over 77,000, with nearly 4,900 people losing the against the pandemic. Iran has been one of the hardest-hit countries by COVID-19, and its latest geopolitical tussle with the United States has made it difficult to muster a sustained response to fight the outbreak.

The ensuing sanctions of the United States and its own internal political challenges are putting Iran's resolve to rise above the present predicament to test. It is, however, crucial not just for Iran to emerge successfully from the challenge, but for the entire region.

Ms. Fatemeh Aman answers some important questions on the current situation of Iran and its capabilities on overcoming the COVID-19 challenge. Ms. Aman also answers some pertinent questions on the emerging US-Iran dynamics that has the potential to alter the geopolitical climate of the region.

Q1) Against the backdrop of a pandemic that is tormenting the globe, tensions between the United States and Iran seems to be on the rise. Recent reports on the orders given by the Pentagon to American military commanders to plan for an escalation of combat against Iranian-backed militia groups, and Iran’s move to increase anti-ship missiles deployment in the Strait of Hormuz shows that the challenges posed by a pandemic have not encouraged the two countries to tone down tensions. What do you think will be the geopolitical implications of such power-posturing from both sides?

A) The geopolitical implications of such power-posturing are depending on many factors and are unpredictable. After the U.S. withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018 and the re-imposition of all sanctions, the policy of maximum pressure on Iran was put in place, aimed at “changing Iran’s behavior” and stopping its use of proxies in different places. The argument was that if there were no money, Iran would not be able to help armed groups in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere. This policy, however, did not succeed in bringing Iran to give up its activities across the region. If we believe that attacking Saudi oil fields, including in Abqaiq and Khurais, were conducted by Iran or Iran-supported groups, it shows how the policy of maximum pressure has failed to make Iran act responsibly. In fact, this policy has caused a backlash.

As you mentioned in your question, it has expanded Iran’s desperation and pushed the country to concentrate more on the use of asymmetric warfare. Internally, it has also empowered the hard-liners and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), meaning exactly those groups which were targeted. The maximum pressure policy has brought out the worst elements within the regime in Tehran. Iranian authorities believe that the United States’ aim of the sanctions is to create social unrest and regime change in Iran, and so they act based on neutralizing this threat.

The statements heard from the US officials indicate that the Iranians may be correct in suspecting that Washington’s ultimate goal is to facilitate regime change in Iran. Broad dissatisfaction with the government due to high inflation, unemployment, and a disappearing middle class all are leading to increased dissatisfaction with the government in Iran.

One of Iran’s tactics to combat what is perceived as the U.S. threat is to make a full-scale military attack on Iran impossible, and a limited military attack associated with a very high cost.

President Hassan Rouhani threatened in December 2018 that Iran may prevent other countries in the Persian Gulf from exporting oil if Iran is prevented from doing so.

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders were more direct in their statements that they would disrupt the import-export going through Strait of Hormuz.

Many opportunities have been lost for Iran and the United States to start a dialog and defuse tensions. Unfortunately, extremists on both sides are very powerful.

Iran’s economy is extremely weak and there is a fear of a collapse. Iran’s dramatic decrease in oil production and price reduction along with a health system overwhelmed by the COVID-19 outbreak has brought the economy to the edge of collapse. The U.S’ opposition to a much-needed IMF loan will also push Iran further to the edge of desperation. Historically, whenever pressures on Iran increased and the country felt more desperate, it engaged in more extreme acts. One example is that now Iran-backed militants in Iraq have become bolder and firmer in their anti-U.S. actions. At the same time, Iran has resumed some of its nuclear activities that were restricted under JCPOA.

There have been miscalculations, both on the side of Iran and the United States in identifying each side’s presumed vulnerabilities. Iran assumes that since the Trump administration is in trouble because of the upcoming presidential election and the need to keep a campaign promise that no new war will start during this administration, the current administration will not start a war with Iran.

Meanwhile, some voices in Washington, such as Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, have called for a stronger response to Iran’s actions in Iraq, arguing that Iran is now more vulnerable due to the devastating extent of COVID-19.

Q2) There have been voices from various corners of the world, including some former US diplomats, calling on the government of the United States to ease sanctions on Iran. On the other hand, many have also argued that sanctions in place do not affect humanitarian efforts or the procurement of medical equipment. What is your view regarding the US government's decision to not ease the sanctions put on Iran? How is this affecting Iran’s fight against COVID-19?

A) Sanctions that were re-imposed by the United States after the U.S. pulling back from the JCPOA, have impacted Iran’s population in many different ways. Iranians now have less ability to buy things due to skyrocketing inflation. The sanctions have also limited the government’s access to medical equipment from abroad.

Now, if you add this limitation to the mismanagement of the crisis of COVID-19, the incompetency of the government, and people’s lack of trust in the government, you can imagine the situation in Iran.

Iran’s public health sector has done a relatively good and effective job in the past fighting infectious diseases, even during the Iran-Iraq war.

In the past, they also managed to perform broad vaccinations against polio, measles and containing outbreaks such as Crimean Congo Hemorrhagic Fever (CCHF). Millions of refugees and immigrants have also been treated well when it comes to public health.

However, the current pandemic and its catastrophic extent may have been impacted by politics, and Iran’s urge to protect its relationship with China. While many countries stopped their flights to and from China, Iranian airlines continued their flights and Iran’s airports became a transit place for those who were denied entry to many countries if they came directly from China.

One recent example is when Iran’s Health Ministry spokesperson Kianoush Jahanpour, called China’s official account of the coronavirus outbreak a “joke,” implying that China was downplaying the extent of the outbreak by giving the impression that COVID-19 was something akin to mild influenza. This was followed by criticism from the Chinese ambassador to Iran of Jahanpour. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Musavi tweeted in support of China: “The Chinese bravery, dedication, and professionalism in COVID-19 containment deserve acknowledgment.” Even hard-liners in Iran protested Jahanpour’s statement, accusing him of siding with the west in criticizing China.

The current situation is also partly due to conflicting messages from the government, religious leaders, and IRGC-affiliates, contradicting each other.

For example, on April 11, the first day that metro and public transportation started working after 14 days on hold, the number of passengers jumped 40 percent. President Rouhani is convinced that reopening government offices, which happened on Saturday, April 11, and reopening businesses, starting next Saturday, won’t impact covid19 spreading. This is while Mohsen Hashemi, chairman of City Council of Tehran, warns that the second wave of COVD-19 could possibly be on its way as a consequence of reopening businesses.

Q3) In the latest issue of its magazine, Al-Naba, the Islamic State has asked its members to step up their aggression on the “crusader nations” in the time of COVID-19 pandemic to take maximum advantage of the situation. Also, the latest reports show that the number of United States security forces is coming down on bases such as Al-Asad. Would this leave a vacuum for the ISIS to fill, and thereby lead to a new chapter in the conflict between the ISIS and the Iran-backed militias? How will Iran be able to cope while it is already dealing with a pandemic?

A) As I mentioned before, this pandemic, along with many other recent factors, such as shooting down a Ukrainian airline with many Iranian passengers on board and secrecy about it, have created mistrust for many Iranians toward the regime and its actions.

Right now, the resources are limited, and Iran’s health system is struggling with the outbreak. Imagine how much resentment it will create when the state TV airs programs demonstrating Iran’s humanitarian help to its allies in southern Lebanon and Iraq, while there have been shortcomings in Iran.

Iran-US tension has greatly played into the hand of insurgent groups in Iraq, including ISIS. The rise of ISIS has been correlated with chaos in Iraq, increased corruption, and weaker government and political institutions. However, more than the decrease of U.S. forces in Iraq, intensifying Iran-U.S. tension in Iraq has empowered ISIS.

As I mentioned previously, maximum pressure on Iran was aimed at forcing Iran to stop its support for militia groups and its proxies. However, the result has been disastrous in many places, especially Iraq.

Let me just refer to Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the 14th commander of United States Central Command, and his March 12 congressional testimony. In response to a question on whether the COVID-19 outbreak will make Iran less hostile to the U.S, it probably will make Iranians “more dangerous rather than less dangerous.”

About the Expert:

Fatemeh Aman is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. She has monitored and written on Iranian, Afghan and other Middle Eastern affairs for over 20 years.

Fatemeh was a TV writer/producer/anchor at Voice of America (VOA) until 2008, and prior to that a correspondent with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty from 1999 through 2007. She has written broadly on Iran and other aspects of Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs. Her writings have appeared in numerous publications, including Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, Jane’s Intelligence Review, the National Interest, and publications of the Middle East Institute. She has been interviewed by the BBC, VOA, Radio Farda, Radio Zamaneh, Iran Wire, Iran International TV, Asharq Al-Awsat, the Council on Foreign Relations, NPR, Manoto TV, and Al Jazeera. She has spoken at several conferences around the world.


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