Does pandemic offer US and Iran chance for partial reset?

By Jonathan Marcus
Defence and diplomatic correspondent

  • Published
Iranian firefighters disinfect streets in Tehran (13 March 2020)Image source, EPA
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The official death toll in Iran from the coronavirus disease has risen to 1,135

We are facing a public health crisis that, in global terms, may be the worst for just over a century.

No wonder then that the coronavirus pandemic has pushed many of the stories that make up our usual daily diet of international news to the sidelines.

Nonetheless, many commentators are already speculating about how global affairs may or may not change in the wake of this drama.

That, though, is a long way off yet.

A more immediate question is whether the behaviour of antagonistic countries - Iran and the United States, in this case - as they both struggle to confront this emergency, might provide a glimmer of hope for a better relationship in the future?

The question is posed because Iran has been hit severely by the virus.

The number of reported cases is already more than 17,000 and the death toll stands at 1,192, although many in Iran believe the actual numbers are a lot higher.

Iran's economy is already weakened by US sanctions and, although Washington insists that humanitarian items - medical supplies, for example - remain outside the sanctions net, the web of restrictions on the Central Bank of Iran and the country's ability to trade with the outside world are only accentuating its problems.

Things have been made even more difficult by transport disruption, border closures and so on, prompted by the wider impact of the pandemic.

Image source, AFP
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The Iranian president has defended his government's response to the crisis

As a measure of Iran's desperate need, it has taken the almost unprecedented step of requesting a $5bn (£4.25bn) emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

This is the first time for some 60 years that Iran has sought IMF funds. A spokesperson for the organisation told me on Tuesday that the IMF "had discussions with the Iranian authorities to better understand their request for emergency financing" and that "the discussions will continue in the days and weeks ahead".

The US, as one of the IMF Executive Board's most important members, will have a significant say in whether Iran gets the money.

Already there are calls from US experts for Iran not just to be given what it needs, but also for the Trump administration to pursue a more compassionate approach to Iran's health crisis in general.

Mark Fitzpatrick, an expert on arms control and the Iranian nuclear programme, insisted that there was a moment now when an opportunity can be seized to break the log-jam.

"US policy toward Iran is stuck, failing to change Iran's behaviour except for the worse," he tweeted on Monday.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

Writing in the US journal The American Conservative on Tuesday, Iran specialist Barbara Slavin argued that the idea, espoused by some US Republicans, that the pandemic might serve to prompt the overthrow of the Iranian regime was absurd.

"The likelihood of massive protests… seems slim given government directives to stay home and rational fears that mass gatherings will only spread the virus," she wrote.

Image source, AFP
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The US says it exempts medicine and medical devices for Iranians from sanctions

The US treasury department, she noted, had taken some small steps to clarify that the humanitarian channel to Iran remained open. But there had been no indications that the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" policy was being reconsidered, she added.

"It appears that the crisis will only push Iran deeper into the arms of China and Russia and strengthen those in the regime who reject reconciliation with the West."

"The Revolutionary Guards, who are handling much of the response to the virus and building emergency medical facilities," she insisted, "will grow even more powerful as Iran comes to look less and less like a theocracy with a thin republican veneer and more like a military dictatorship."

So what then is the chance of even some modest rapprochement?

Not much if the public statements of some of the key players are to be taken at face value.

The Trump administration has sought to score diplomatic points in this crisis.

The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said earlier this week that Iran's leaders had "lied about the Wuhan virus for weeks", and that they were "trying to avoid responsibility for their... gross incompetence".

Note there the use of the term "Wuhan virus", which Mr Pompeo prefers to "coronavirus".

Image source, EPA
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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hopes Iran may release some detained Americans

Washington is seeking to have a jab at Beijing too, but equally some Chinese figures have been ready to brand the pandemic as some kind of conspiracy created by the US military.

But in regard to Iran, Mr Pompeo has gone further.

He bluntly stated that "the Wuhan virus is a killer and the Iranian regime is an accomplice".

Nonetheless, he said the US was "trying to offer help".

"We have an open humanitarian channel... even as our maximum pressure campaign denies terrorists money."

Image source, Reuters
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Iran's government has urged other countries to ignore the US sanctions

In terms of potential military confrontation - remember, just a few weeks ago the US and Iran seemed to be on the brink of war - there have been some indirect incidents.

They include rocket attacks on Iraqi military bases used by US-led coalition forces that the Americans believe were carried out by a pro-Iranian Shia militia. One attack killed three coalition service personnel - one of them a British medic - and the US responded with air strikes.

General Frank McKenzie of CentCom, the man in charge of US forces in the Middle East, told the Senate Armed Services Committee recently that the coronavirus outbreak might make a weakened Iran "more dangerous".

The US is certainly not taking any risks, unusually maintaining two aircraft carriers in the region.

Of course, the indirect culpability of Iran in such attacks is always contested - certainly by the Iranians themselves.

Image source, Twitter/OIRSpox
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Two rocket attacks have targeted Iraq's Camp Taji base, which hosts US-led coalition troops

This is not necessarily a tap that Tehran can just turn on and off at will. Many of its proxies have local concerns and goals.

The Shia militias in Iraq are eager to force the Americans out. But Iran could probably do a lot to scale down the frequency or severity of incidents.

Indeed, in general the pandemic does seem to be reducing military confrontation in the wider region.

On the Iran-Israel front in Syria, things seem to be noticeably quieter. And Gen McKenzie also noted that the US might have to "ultimately live with a low-level of proxy attacks", a statement that reduces some of the drama from the situation.

Image source, Reuters
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Top Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed in a US drone strike in Baghdad on 3 January

The Iranian leadership too has been talking tough.

President Hassan Rouhani noted on Wednesday that Iran had responded to the US killing of the famed Revolutionary Guards General Qasem Soleimani in January, but also making clear that that this response would continue.

"The Americans assassinated our great commander," he said in a televised speech. "We have responded to that terrorist act and will respond to it."

So, on the face of it, there's not much chance of taking the sting out of the US-Iran relationship.

Washington's attitude to the IMF loan may be a pointer to how things might develop. And indeed rhetoric should not necessarily be taken at face value.

At the end of February, the US contacted Iran via the Swiss government to say that it was "prepared to assist the Iranian people in their response efforts".

Only on Tuesday, Mr Pompeo, along with his tough words to both Tehran and Beijing, spoke of his hope that Tehran might be considering releasing some Americans detained in the country.

The temporary release of the British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is another small pointer of a shift in Tehran.

Image source, Free Nazanin campaign
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Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been released along with tens of thousands of other prisoners

At the end of the day, Iran may well need to tacitly restrain some of the groups who have the Americans and other Western forces in their sights.

They will need to release detained foreign nationals.

And the Trump administration will need to decide whether this is an opportunity to create a small opening with Tehran along sound humanitarian grounds or, whether the mounting pressure on the regime from both sanctions and now the coronavirus, is a moment to double-down.

It could be a fateful decision for what comes next when the pandemic has passed.