Analysis

As Coronavirus Strikes, Iran Forced to Rethink Its Proxy Wars

Strategically, the coronavirus provides Israel with some good news ■ Where Netanyahu demonstrates leadership, Trump exemplifies ignorance

Iran's Defense Minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami wearing a protective mask and gloves as means of protection against the coronavirus COVID-19, March 11, 2020.
AFP

The other side of the coronavirus coin for Israel concerns its antagonists in the region. There is still a certain amount of security friction – on Wednesday, two American and one British soldiers were killed in a rocket attack by a pro-Iranian militia in Iraq – but it is evident from its extent and frequency that this it has become a lower priority on the regional agenda.

The virus has taken a large toll on Iran. The country was struck right at the first stage of its now pandemic spread, apparently partly because authorities delayed closing air traffic with China. The Iranians did not want to anger Beijing, in the context of the extensive trade between the two countries.

Since the virus initially spread mainly along the route between the sacred city of Qom and Tehran, it infected a relatively large number of senior people in the regime, who spend a lot of time in both cities. As of this Thursday morning, Iran has reported more than 10,000 people sick and more than 420 dead. However, the reliability of the regime had already taken a harsh blow with the erroneous downing of the Ukrainian plane in Iranian airspace in January, when for several days it delayed acknowledgement of its responsibility for launching the missiles.

Overall, the way Iran has been dealing with the virus is considered a failure and slow. Even now, intelligence services in the West suspect that the real number of victims in the country is higher than what is stated in the official reports. However, Israel does not give credit to the reports that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has come down with the coronavirus or has gone into quarantine in face of the spread of the disease. On Thursday, Lebanon had its first three deaths – and still, flights from Iran, apparently the main origin of the spread, have not been stopped.

Iranian firefighters disinfect streets and allies in southern Tehran to halt the wild spread of coronavirus on March 11, 2020.
AFP

The virus has caught Iran in the midst of a prolonged economic crisis exacerbated by the renewal of U.S. sanctions. The economic slowdown in the wake of the virus has led to another decline in oil prices, which recent market confrontations between Saudi Arabia and Russia have accelerated. When Iranian oil production dropped to half a million barrels a day, jaws dropped in Military Intelligence. This week, the country produced about 150,000 barrels a day, at only about $30 a barrel. For Tehran, this is a dramatic blow.

The crisis is deepening the regime’s dilemma with regard to its subversive activity throughout the Middle East. This was the flagship project of Qassem Soleimani, the Revolutioniary Guard general assassinated in an Americans strike at the beginning of January. Apparently, his successors and the regime in Tehran will have to reconsider the extent of their regional activity in light of mounting budgetary constraints.

This is the point, more or less, where good news might somehow grow out of the crisis.  It was hard to watch U.S. President Donald Trump’s news conference on Thursday morning without experiencing a slight tremor of anxiety. During his more than three years in the White House, the president has enjoyed a relative paucity of international crises. For his many supporters, the nighttime assassination of the Iranian general, or a one-time meeting with a North Korean dictator sufficed to give the appearance of strength and leadership.

Now, however, Washington finds itself on the brink of a huge health and economic crisis for which it seems ill-prepared. Is it possible to think of a person less suited than Trump to deal with an event with so many dimensions and casualties? His responses in the past few weeks have only demonstrated the extent to which the president’s obvious deficiencies will make the response difficult. Trump is suspicious of scientific research, scorns experts, is utterly confident about his gut feeling, hates foreigners, deals obsessively with his own image and lacks any ability to express empathy for others.  Also disturbing is his tendency to examine every question through its effect on Wall Street (the market is up – I am a giant; stocks have plummeted – the Democrats and the media are to blame).

And this is just small change. The deadliest combination lies in the president’s flexible attitude towards facts together with his frequent attempts to force qualified professionals to describe the reality in a way that will flatter him and serve him. This is a clear and immediate danger to all U.S. residents' health, certainly in light of the pandemic the likes of which the world has not seen in the past 100 years.

Donald Trump addresses the nation during a live television broadcast regarding the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, Washington, U.S., March 11, 2020.
Tom Brenner/ REUTERS

At a press conference of his own on Wednesday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu handed out praise to himself, his officials and his government ministers and then demonstrated the use of a paper tissue. We'll have to wait for the end of the crisis, which is far from its peak, to form an opinion about his transitional government. There is lively debate in the media on whether the steps that Israel is taking are sufficient. But we can be certain that Netanyahu’s leadership is preferable in a crisis like this one – provided he continues to be attentive to the professionals’ recommendations – to navigation by a fool like Trump.

On Twitter and on the editorial pages of the newspapers they are still talking at length about defections and attempts to form governments. However, during this past week it seems the Israeli public has gone over to being concerned mainly about one thing only – the virus and its expected effects on its health and its pocket.  Here is an incautious bet: Ultimately, Netanyahu will leverage the coronavirus crisis for the formation of a unity government in conditions that are relatively comfortable for him, or for a war of postponement and attrition that will culminate in a fourth election.

The virus will also be exploited for a war of legal haggling, in an attempt to delay as much possible the deliberations in the Jerusalem District Court. Without discounting his commitment to dealing with the crisis, the situation has clearly granted the prime minister an opportunity to extract considerable personal benefit from it.