By Hadi Raouf, The Independent Arabia
The fight against the COVID-19 pandemic — which has caused global health, humanitarian and economic crisis — requires a coherent and concerted plan of action and unprecedented cooperation by the international community that includes defusing political tensions, halting military conflicts and putting aside ideological differences for the common good.
Political observers, however, doubt that the current global health crisis and its severe impact on Iran would force the Islamic Republic regime to scale down its military activities in the region. Iran is among the countries worst affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, yet Iranian authorities have done a poor job of containing the spread of the infection so far.
According to the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, which uses the Iranian government’s data, the coronavirus had infected around 65,000 people and claimed close to 6,000 lives in Iran as of April 17. Opposition groups believe the numbers to be much higher.
The global fight against the coronavirus pandemic has done very little to bring Washington and Tehran closer. The tensions between the two countries reached boiling point after the U.S. military carried out a drone attack on Baghdad International Airport on Jan. 3, killing Lieutenant General Ghasem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Qods Force (IRGC-QF) and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy chief of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF).
The escalation of tensions between the U.S. and Iran that put the two countries on the warpath was the top news story for the first three months of 2020 until the outbreak of coronavirus. The pandemic is posing an existential threat to the entire world. While the global health crisis has overshadowed the political dispute between Tehran and Washington, it has not stopped it by any means. The tensions between these two countries will only increase in the coming weeks and months.
Tehran has been quick to accuse the U.S. of waging biological warfare against the Islamic Republic by creating coronavirus in a laboratory to attack the DNA of Iranian people specifically. Tehran also blames U.S. sanctions for its failure to slow down the spread of COVID-19 in the country and accuses Washington of preventing it from buying medicine and medical supplies.
Washington, however, maintains that sanctions have not prevented Iran from getting help with its coronavirus epidemic. It notes that the U.S. and the Swiss government agreed to a joint humanitarian scheme on Feb. 3, which allows companies to provide food, prescription medicine, and medical equipment to Iran without being penalized by stringent U.S. sanctions.
Under the scheme, the Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement (SHTA) ensures that Swiss-based exporters and trading companies in the food, pharmaceutical, and medical sectors have a secure channel with a Swiss bank that guarantees payments for the sale of their products to Iran. The scheme has enabled Iran to purchase 2.3 million euros worth of medicine and medical equipment so far through Tejarat Bank.
Iran has also applied for a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to help with its coronavirus epidemic. The U.S. has opposed the loan, arguing that Iran has more than enough in assets and foreign currency reserves to help with its fight against the virus.
Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic continues its pernicious activities in the region despite having to deal with critical domestic issues, including hyperinflation, rampant unemployment, and health and economic effects of coronavirus.
In addition, the rocket attacks carried out in mid-March by pro-Iranian Shia militias on the Al Taji (Camp Taji) airfield in Iraq, which houses U.S. troops, show Tehran’s deliberate attempt to escalate tensions with Washington.
A recent move by the U.S. to place advanced air defense systems in Iraq to fend off Iranian missile and rocket attacks demonstrates that tensions between the two countries will not cease or ease soon. According to the Pentagon, the U.S. has positioned Patriot missile launchers and two other short-range systems at al-Asad Air Base in Iraq to defend against Iranian missile attacks. Iran fired several missiles at al-Asad Air Base on Jan. 8 in retaliation of General Soleimani’s assassination. No Iraqi or U.S. soldiers died in the attack.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a statement lambasting the U.S. for placing its Patriot defense systems in Iraq.
“The redeployment of the U.S. military forces to Iraq and placing advanced missile defense systems on its soil goes against the wishes of Iraqi people and parliament,” the statement said. “While the international community is battling the coronavirus pandemic, these actions by the U.S. do not help to restore peace in the Middle East.”
It is highly unlikely that the U.S. would lift or even ease the sanctions against Iran soon, given the scale and intensity of hostilities between the two countries.
The Islamic Republic does not, however, seek a military confrontation with the U.S. Senior Iranian officials believe that Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus crisis will cost him the presidential elections in November, which in their view will pave the way for a resumption of talks with Washington.
To further weaken Mr. Trump’s reelection chances, Tehran might use Shia militia groups under its control to attack U.S. forces in Iraq. A military conflict could cost Trump some political capital and give an advantage to the Democrats and their de facto nominee, former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
It is, however, doubtful that any of these strategies would benefit Tehran. It is abundantly clear that Trump and his administration will not scale back their policy of “maximum pressure,” which aims to curb Iran’s regional ambitions.
Besides, if Iran were serious about improving ties with the U.S., it would immediately release all dual nationals from prison, many of whom have been held for years on unspecified charges. Such a goodwill gesture would undoubtedly motivate countries around the world to provide Iran with humanitarian aid and pave the way for the resumption of talks between Washington and Tehran.
The international community would not pressure the Islamic Republic regime over the nuclear issue if Tehran were to release all political prisoners, including the dual nationals, and halt its proxy wars in the region.
This article was translated and adapted from Persian by Fardine Hamidi.