After virus, what’s ahead for troublesome Iran?


WASHINGTON — Iran by its own accounting is the fifth-ranked among nations in coronavirus fatalities. Outside experts say the rate is likely much higher.

The confluence of hard-hitting sanctions on the country and Iran’s floundering theocracy frustrated an adequate response to the pandemic, according to most accounts, but the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, knows who to blame: Genies. And Americans.

Khamenei’s March 22 speech marking Nowruz, the Persian New Year, has spooked regime watchers inside and outside the country. He blamed the pandemic on the demons identified in the Quran as “Jinn,” known as genies in Western lore, and American intelligence services working in tandem.

“We have jinn and human enemies that help each other,” he said, according to a translation by Maryam Sinaiee, a British-Iranian political analyst writing for Radio Farda, the U.S. government’s Persian language news service. “The intelligence services of many countries work together against us.” Among these, he said, was the “most evil enemy of the Islamic Republic” — the United States.

It’s an alarming prospect: If Khamenei truly believes that the CIA is working hand in hand with demons to engage in biowarfare against Iran, he may see fit to respond in kind. And any response would likely bring in Israel, the closest American ally in the region.

“A regime under siege from all sides and that has no exit ramp might calculate that it has little to lose and a confrontation with the U.S. would be a good distraction,” Ali Vaez, Iran Project director for the International Crisis Group, told the JTA.

Blaming other countries is not unique among leaders worldwide: Chinese media and officials also have insinuated that the virus is a means of U.S. warfare. President Donald Trump frequently faults how China and Europe have handled COVID-19 when he is under fire for how he has dealt with it.

The stakes are higher with Iran, given how besieged the regime is — a number of its leaders have contracted the virus and at least one has died — and the theocracy’s history of acting on the religious dictates of its leaders.

Patrick Clawson, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the language was so alarming that for days, Iranian government sites posting the speech omitted the passage about jinn — suggesting that even officials close to the 80-year-old Khamenei felt it was prudent to obscure the comments.

“Senior people in the IRGC,” the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, “were saying ‘this guy is our leader, is the old man losing it?’ ” Clawson said in an interview.

There was good reason to be spooked, Clawson said. The Nowruz speech is the equivalent of the State of the Union, “the biggest speech of the year,” he said.

Scenario 1: An Iranian response is happening now

Militias in Iraq aligned with Iran have attacked U.S. targets in the country in recent weeks, including a rocket attack that killed two American soldiers. 

An assistant secretary of state, David Schenker, tied the attacks to the coronavirus, but Clawson has his doubts. The militias, he said, have minds of their own and are less likely to take orders from Iran since the U.S. assassinated a top IRGC general, Qassem Soleimani, earlier this year.

“Iranians have after Soleimani’s death lost control of those militias,” Clawson said. The militias “are in the teenage stage, they do what they want.”

Scenario 2: It happens later

Iran has played a long game historically when it retaliates for perceived aggression.

“I read the speech as implying that Iran should consider retaliating in kind with bioweapons,” Clawson said. “It would be months down the road, not days.”

The Nuclear Threat Initiative, a weapons of mass destruction watchdog, says there have not been definitive assessments recently that Iran has biological weapons, but it likely has the capability. Getting to actual weapons, and selecting an appropriate arena to make it clear that Iran is ready to use them, would take time.

Scenario 3: The U.S. continues to squeeze Iran

The Trump administration has not relented in pressuring Iran with sanctions, imposing new ones this week on 20 companies and officials that it says are implicated in attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq. The aim of what the Trump administration calls a “maximum pressure” policy is to get Iran to stand down from its adventurism, although it has yet to show substantial results.

Hawkish critics of the regime note that Iran has rejected humanitarian assistance that is allowed under the sanctions, even expellig a mission by Doctors Without Borders.

“The Iranian government had the power to curtail the virus, but instead they ignored the situation, lied to their people,” David Ibsen, president of United Against a Nuclear Iran, wrote in EuroNews. “Sanctions are not the villain in this regretful story.”

Scenario 4: The pandemic eases relations

Vaez and his Crisis Group colleague, Robert Malley, wrote in Foreign Policy that the coronavirus crisis could create an opportunity to deflate tensions between the United States and Iran.

“Both Washington and Tehran have floated ideas” related to the pandemic “that, if acted upon, could break the current vicious cycle,” they wrote.

They cite Washington’s demand that Iran release foreign prisoners susceptible to the spread of the virus, and Iran’s bid for an International Monetary Fund loan to buy equipment to tackle the virus. Were Iran to release the prisoners, and the United States to refrain from blocking the IMF loan, that could set in motion a dynamic that could lead to more expansive backdowns affecting sanctions and Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, Vaez and Malley say.

“The reality is that this crisis is also a diplomatic opportunity, but all the indicators are now in the opposite direction,” Vaez said. ”It seems Iran and the United States are on a collision course rather than using this crisis as an opportunity to reduce tensions.”

Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, said Iran has for decades been accelerating its malign activity outside its borders, and that a crisis only exacerbates those tendencies.

“They’re becoming more desperate to try to strengthen and stabilize a regime that is in the throes of dissolution that looks to be entering a period of significant risk to its survival,” he said.