Main Image Credit Workers disinfect the Tehran subway against coronavirus. Courtesy of Zoheir Seidanloo/Wikimedia Commons
Hard-hit by the coronavirus crisis, Iran shows no signs of weakening overseas.
Iran has been one of the worst-hit countries by the spread of coronavirus in the Middle East and across the world. Based on the official figures, there have been more than 80,000 confirmed cases and approximately 5,000 fatalities because of the virus to date.
Despite the extent of the crisis, the policy in Iran has been to maintain a ‘business as usual’ approach, both in domestic and foreign policy terms. The main reason for this is the state of the economy, exacerbated by the impact of the sanctions imposed by the US over the past two years. Even before the outbreak, inflation stood at 41.1%. In 2019, GDP contracted by 8.7%, making it difficult, if not impossible, for Iran to afford the implementation of the lockdown measures adopted elsewhere.
Another reason for the adoption of this ‘business as usual’ approach is Tehran’s goal of sending a clear message to the Trump administration that despite the crisis, Iran is nowhere near collapsing under the maximum pressure campaign adopted by the US since 2018.
The decision-makers in Tehran are convinced that the US is fully invested in seeing the continuation of this campaign bring Iran to its knees. This is especially the case since mid-November 2019, when thousands of Iranians poured into the streets across the country to protest the decision to increase the fuel prices – they were brutally repressed by security forces, with hundreds being killed.
This, coupled with anti-government protests in Iraq and Lebanon threatening Iran’s influence in the region, has been viewed by senior US officials as 'the worst political crisis the regime has faced in its 40 years'. Such events led to a rethink in Washington about its ‘close-call diplomacy’ with Iran, which had been mediated by France.
The US has since doubled down on the adoption of sanctions against Iran, while also ordering the assassination of Qassem Soleimani (the renowned commander of the Quds Forces), and launching frequent airstrikes on Iran-backed forces in Iraq and Syria. During the pandemic, the Trump administration reinforced the message that it has no intention to lift the pressure or divert from its maximum pressure campaign. It even imposed new sanctions, despite calls to ease the existing ones to allow Iran to defeat the spread of the virus more effectively. These actions have made many believe that the US is viewing the outbreak as an opportunity to further exacerbate Iran’s weakness.
In light of the US posture and the security threat that this poses for Iran, it is thus understandable that Tehran has every interest to counter any perceptions in Washington that the coronavirus crisis is the last straw breaking Iran’s back.
In the region, this means that despite the prospects of further strains on the Iranian economy over the next few months because of the pandemic, Iran will likely continue to maintain its forward defence doctrine in place.
Iraq constitutes the perfect example in this sense. In the middle of the coronavirus outbreak, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, and the new commander of the Quds Forces, Esmail Qaani, both visited Baghdad to unite the Shia factions and make sure Iran’s interests are fully reflected in the complex process of appointing the new Iraqi Prime Minister. The message behind these visits was clear: although the killing of Soleimani has been a ‘great blow to Iran and the axis of resistance, it did not mean that Iran would remain inactive from now on’. In fact, Iran’s influence and interests in Iraq remain unchanged, with the overarching goal being to ultimately push US forces out of the country and, more generally, the region.
Tehran reinforced this message last week when 11 navy vessels of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (known as the IRGC) came in close vicinity with six American warships in the Persian Gulf, in what the US navy described as 'dangerous and harassing approaches'. Following the skirmish, the IRGC issued a statement stressing Iran’s commitment to pursue a 'decisive response' to any miscalculation and ‘dangerous moves from outsiders’ in the Persian Gulf and Sea of Oman.
Earlier this week, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif travelled to Damascus to meet Bashar al Assad, equipped with masks and practising social distancing. The goal? To prepare for discussions during the Astana process, with a focus on the constitutional committee and developments in Idlib. Once again, however, between the lines, the message to the US was that ‘there will be no change in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s path of supporting the resistance and fighting terrorism in the region’.
Today, the IRGC claimed to have successfully launched a military satellite into orbit for the first time, in what would be perceived by the US as defying UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which calls on Iran not to undertake activities linked to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
The visits, statements and actions taken indicate that the ‘business as usual’ policy is endorsed and advanced across the board by Iran’s decision-makers, going beyond the usual factional lines and divisions between so-called moderates and hardliners. Regardless of the pandemic and the scarcity of resources because of the dire economic situation, Tehran seems committed to maintaining the country’s national security priorities and, most importantly, to respond to the maximum pressure campaign exerted by the US at all costs.
Without any easing of tensions in sight, rather than constituting an opportunity for détente and for the reprisal of diplomacy between the two sides, the coronavirus pandemic is thus likely to be the latest battleground in the Iran–US confrontation.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Dr Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi
Senior Research Fellow
International Security Studies