Economic and social activity may be slowly grinding to a halt in the United States, but geopolitics waits for no public health crisis. Despite the global outbreak of Coronavirus, the simmering conflict between Iran and the United States has not cooled.
Following the strike that took Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Qasem Soleimani off the battlefield in January, the tempo of audacious attacks on U.S. assets and allies from Iran and its proxies quieted down. Despite Iran’s retaliatory (and face-saving) ballistic-missile attack on American positions in Iraq, it soon became apparent that Iran had stepped back from the brink of direct hostilities with the United States. But the status quo ante, while less dangerous than all-out war, was by no means peaceful. In the months that followed the Soleimani strike, Iran-backed militias in Iraq continued to launch sporadic missile attacks on U.S. positions. This week, one of those attacks killed two Americans and a British service member. The White House advertised its intention to respond, and, on Thursday, it did just that.
The U.S. targeted five weapons-storage depots inside Iraq associated with the Shiite militia group Kataib Hezbollah, further degrading its capacity to execute future attacks on coalition positions. There were no estimates on the casualties this militia incurred as a result of coalition strikes, but officials suggested that between three and four dozen fighters were killed or injured. The Pentagon described these strikes as “defensive and proportional,” and they’re highly unlikely to have been definitive. Kataib Hezbollah is the same organization that was blamed for a December rocket strike on American positions that wounded three U.S. service members and killed an American contractor and later laid siege to the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. If the Soleimani strike effectively deterred the Iranian military, Iran’s loyal proxies in the region remain quite active.
This violence comes at a time of unprecedented stress on the Iranian regime. The Islamic Republic has been hit particularly hard by the Coronavirus, in part, as a result of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions regime. Tehran’s efforts to evade American sanctions has increased its reliance on China—links that it could not afford to sever even as the outbreak worsened. “Iran’s strategic partnership with Beijing has created a constellation of potential contacts that helped unleash the illness,” the Wall Street Journal reported. This has only contributed to the anti-regime sentiment in Iran that has produced sporadic episodes of violent unrest for the better part of three years. “We were unhappy with all these crappy Chinese goods everywhere,” one Iranian housewife told WSJ reporters. “Now they brought us this crappy virus, too.”
According to official regime statistics, just over 500 people have died as a result of the outbreak. But there’s reason to be skeptical of these figures. As CNN reported, private satellite imagery indicates a rapid excavation of trenches around the city of Qom—a municipality with some of the closest economic links to China—which analysts believe are to be used as graves. A provocative analysis by the Atlantic‘s Graeme Wood concludes that Iran is deliberately underreporting domestic COVID-19 cases by tens or even hundreds of thousands. Still, Iran’s official news agencies are reporting that the disease has taken a grim toll on the nation’s governmental and security apparatuses. “Iran’s senior vice president and two other Cabinet members have contracted the new coronavirus,” Iran’s FARS news agency reported this week. “Among the dead are five of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard members and an unspecified number of the Guard’s volunteer Basij force,” Iran’s health ministry revealed.
“The economic depression is far more pervasive and contagious than the virus itself,” said one Iranian business owner. Iran’s economy is already estimated to have contracted by almost 10 percent in 2019 as a result of international sanctions, and the reduced domestic economic activity and trade with its remaining partners will only exacerbate these conditions. Perhaps more urgent for Iran, the efforts by Saudi Arabia and Russia to ramp up energy production have sent global oil prices into a tailspin.
Tehran is slightly more insulated from the oil-price shock than it might have been in the absence of American sanctions, which have curtailed Iranian energy exports. But plummeting rates of production and export have deepened the economic crisis in Iran and produced “mass layoffs” in the Iranian oil sector. It was only last November that the economic pressure on the Iranian regime forced it to pare back the subsidies that kept domestic gasoline prices low, yielding to widespread protests, violence, and a shutdown of the Internet. It’s unlikely to be coincidental that this domestic unrest coincided with the escalating military provocations against Americans and their allies in Iraq that culminated in the Soleimani strike.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the level of risk the Iranian regime is prepared to accept is directly proportional to the economic hardships it endures. And for Tehran, the threat posed by a global Coronavirus pandemic alongside the collapse of global oil prices is a perfect storm. It’s reasonable to assume, then, more violence in the Middle East will be forthcoming.