Coronavirus Outbreak Gives Iran a Narrow Window of Opportunity for Better U.S. Relations

Urgings and pressures have not produced a substantial shift in Washington’s policy, but a crack was nonetheless forged. Is Iran willing to shift its stance?

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Protesters burn a U.S. flag during a demonstration over the U.S. airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Tehran, January 3, 2020.
Protesters burn a U.S. flag during a demonstration over the U.S. airstrike in Iraq that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Tehran, January 3, 2020.Credit: Vahid Salemi,AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“They have no [hospital] beds and they don’t dare go to work, but that doesn’t stop them from continuing to tell lies about Iran,” the country’s president, Hassan Rohani, said, castigating the United States administration. An American offer to assist Iran was rejected scornfully this week by the commander of the Revolutionary Guards, Hossein Salami: “If the American nation needs help, we can render assistance to them, but we do not need their help.”

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 72

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Help, no, but Tehran is demanding that Washington lift the sanctions it has imposed, and it’s not alone in that call. Leading members of Congress, such as Sen. Jared Huffman (Democrat, California), Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Peter Welch (Democrat, Vermont) and dozens more this week urged President Donald Trump to take advantage of the opportunity to show compassion by easing the sanctions and sending Iran direct aid in equipment and funds. The New York Times published a measured editorial, which made an obvious effort to be balanced. It called on the president to adopt a wise foreign policy that would loosen sanctions on a country that has been hard-hit by coronavirus. “Demonstrating compassion in times of crisis is good foreign policy, and in this case it may actually help achieve the goals the Trump administration is pursuing,” the Times wrote. It, too, called for financial aid to be sent to Iran, or at least for Washington not to oppose Tehran’s request of a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

The Times believes that a gesture of this sort could bring about the release of American prisoners held in Iran and possibly even lay the foundation for negotiations on the nuclear agreement. But even if that optimistic forecast doesn’t pan out, the Times maintains, the United States would at least be seen as a humanitarian country that is able to transcend political and diplomatic considerations in a period of crisis.

It’s difficult to know what would influence Trump. Would it be Congressional representatives, including some from his own party urging him to take action that runs contrary to his character and to display a perhaps latent humanitarian side; or possibly media commentators who are assailing him for tightening the sanctions on Iran now of all times? Perhaps the president will heed assessments he’s hearing from some of his advisers, who think that if he still believes in conducting a dialogue with the Iranian regime, he should offer some sort of a carrot. The rationale is that an American goodwill gesture at this time would not be considered buckling under or a display of weakness, but might actually benefit the United States.

The views of some of the president’s advisers would seem to be consistent with the position taken by his Iranian counterpart. Rohani said this week that Iran “must cooperate with the world in the war against the coronavirus… Because if 10 countries were affected by the virus but the war against it is being waged by only nine of them and one remains outside, it would be pointless, because the virus does not recognize borders.”

Documents being shown to Trump indicate that the spread of the disease in Iran is liable to affect American forces stationed in Iraq, as well as U.S. allies such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait. Hence, the effort to curb the epidemic in Iran is not only a humanitarian issue but also impinges on the national security of the United States. Rohani even tried to induce the United States to take steps by calling on Washington to apologize for their evil deeds against the Iranian nation. “Their hostility [toward Iranians] is obvious,” he said.

The fact that Rohani did not stipulate the standard condition for any dialogue with the U.S. – lifting the sanctions – was interpreted in Iran as a softening of the rigid line and as readiness by Tehran to be more flexible about the preconditions for negotiating, in the wake of the severe blow Iran has suffered in the epidemic. According to the official figures, whose credibility is difficult to gauge, more than 3,000 Iranians have died of the virus, and hospitals, with a shortage of beds and insufficient medical staff, are bursting with tens of thousands more who have been infected.

These urgings and pressures have not produced a substantial shift in Washington’s policy, but a narrow crack was nonetheless forged. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the great advocate of the “maximum pressure” policy toward Iran – as Trump likes to call the administration’s stance, viewing the Tehran leadership as a gang of miscreants who support terrorism – said this week that he is willing to consider easing the sanctions on humanitarian grounds. Pompeo did not elaborate on the timing or the nature of any such move, and swiftly added that the sanctions do not apply to basic foods or medications, meaning that there is no real reason to ease them. But the very fact that he made the remark is a genuine innovation in the administration’s rhetoric, even if it will not be accompanied by any genuine action.

In the meantime, the European Union and Iran chalked up a first success in operating the sanctions-bypassing financing mechanism that they established in January 2019 and which hadn’t taken off until now. A first deal for medications from Germany crossed the fear barrier, as a I will toss money to you out of helicopters so you will love me and not toss me out of my job shipment landed in Iran. It’s not clear whether this success is the harbinger of the commercial bonanza that the European countries are hoping for, but it’s already generating concern in Washington. The EU has established a special fund for such aid, which pays the European exporter or manufacturer the cost of the deal which will be offset by Iranian exports to Europe, while Tehran will settle accounts with the Iranian importer via its own similar mechanism. This system precludes the need to use dollars or bank transfers, which are subject to the sanctions. It’s thought that in the immediate period, at least, this system can be used primarily to supply humanitarian goods to Iran, while at the same time Europe will be able to mitigate American criticism and threats.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a ceremony celebrating the 41st anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, at the Azadi, Freedom, Square in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. Credit: Ebrahim Noroozi,AP

No one disputes the fact that, despite Iran’s boasting that it is capable of curbing the epidemic on its own, its economic situation, and particularly of its health services, are on the brink of collapse. Iran faces an acute shortage of basic equipment, such as protective masks, ventilators, gloves and disinfectants. Some hospitals have reported that medical staff have only had masks at their disposal to use, which is a substantial health risk. At least 55 physicians and other medical personnel have died of the illness, there are not enough beds or quarantine rooms in the rural areas, and essential medications are running out very quickly.

After a long delay in adopting isolation measures and lockdowns, Iran has now imposed severe restrictions on travel among its cities and within them. Only food shops, drugstores, veterinarians, bakeries and suppliers of various types of equipment are being allowed to remain open. Malls, cafés, restaurants, swimming pools and public parks have been closed down, and the Revolutionary Guards are making their medical services available to the public. At the same time, fierce criticism is being voiced on social networks about the behavior of the Revolutionary Guards in terms of distributing equipment and medications – which go first to the elites and members of parliament, leaving the general public to make do with strips of cloth as face masks. Iran also furloughed some 93,000 prisoners until April 19, when they will return to jail after being tested for coronavirus.

After declaring at the start of the crisis that it was working on a vaccine, Iran has acknowledged that these efforts have been unsuccessful; Tehran is now importing an unproven vaccine from China in order to manufacture it locally. It’s difficult to gauge the scale of public obedience to the social distancing directives that were imposed this week, but Rohani was effusive in his praise of public solidarity. The website of IRNA, the Iranian news agency, published eye-catching photographs this week of empty public parks and a neighborhood soccer field being crossed gently by a cat.

“We are not applying the Chinese model,” Rohani said, because “Chinese social policy is appropriate for the Chinese and not for Iran.” However, his remarks explaining why no full lockdown had been, has not allayed criticism being heard about the regime’s initial response to the pandemic. Similarly, the economic plan proposed by Tehran to assist industries and private citizens has also been roundly condemned. “Despite the sanctions, we are making available $10 billion to assist the needy,” Rohani said, but that’s a paltry amount considering the vast economic damage, on top of which the conditions for its distribution are also vague.

Iran’s serious plight is grist for the mill of a different faction of Trump’s advisers. They believe that the coronavirus epidemic will cause Iran to capitulate and agree to Washington’s negotiating terms. That’s the thinking on which the sanctions regime is based: that the pressure will spark a civil uprising or a backtracking by the regime, to ensure its survival. This is not the view of Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of the U.S. Central Command. In a hearing last month before the Senate’s e Armed Services Committee, he said, “They [the Iranian leadership] are fractured now and they’re having difficulty dealing with a number of things. So I think it probably makes them, in terms of decision-making, more dangerous rather than less dangerous.”

McKenzie was apparently referring to Iran’s readiness to act via emissaries in Iraq against American targets and targets in the Persian Gulf. Does the general’s warning mean that it is incumbent on the United States to find a diplomatic channel to Iran, or that it should ratchet up its threats? It looks like we’ll have to wait to hear from Trump’s pals on Fox News to find out how the administration is likely to act.

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