Iran may be an epicenter of the global COVID-19 pandemic, but that has not kept the Islamic Republic from pursuing its rivalry with the United States more aggressively than before. The regime’s strategy is to combine a coronavirus-focused disinformation campaign with an escalation of proxy warfare across the region in order to undermine the Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy.
While leveraging Tehran’s strengths, this strategy also reflects Iran’s need to evade massive challenges at home, including a looming economic collapse, internal unrest aggravated by the regime’s malpractice, and the potential for deeper divisions within the ruling elite after the eventual passing of 80-year-old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The Islamic Republic knew since late December about the extreme danger COVID-19 posed to Iran, but senior regime officials left Iran wide open to the spread of the virus. Having survived a nation-wide uprising in November 2019, the regime feels very vulnerable to renewed rebellion and possibly being overthrown. COVID-19 began spreading in Iran during the run-up to the country’s February 21 parliamentary elections, so the regime, fearing low turnout, decided to ignore the budding crisis and lie to the public. Fearing a disruption to the ruling clergy’s religious and economic base of support, the regime did not quarantine major centers of the epidemic, such as the holy cities of Qom and Mashhad, and closed their religious shrines only recently.
One exceptionally reckless decision was to allow the Iranian carrier Mahan Airlines to continue flying between China and Iran as the epidemic peaked in Wuhan. Mahan is operated by Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and thus is more immune to domestic and international pressures to curtail its activities, since doing so would hurt the IRGC’s financial and political interests. The regime currently reports an official death toll of just over 3,000 people, but estimates by credible sources suggest that the number could be much higher. Much like other authoritarian countries, such as China, the Islamic Republic has hidden the epidemic’s true cost.
To distract from its extraordinary malpractice, the regime has adopted a two-prong disinformation campaign, promoting baseless theories that blame the United States for the coronavirus outbreak while falsely claiming medicine shortages in Iran are due to U.S. sanctions. Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani have both blamed a U.S. “conspiracy” for causing the pandemic. The second prong of Tehran’s disinformation campaign is Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s rallying of international opposition to U.S. sanctions. Leading editorial boards, Obama administration officials, and senior Democratic lawmakers have made similar arguments as Zarif. Their mistake is to believe assertions that sanctions pose a significant barrier to medical imports. Yet the regime has refused direct medical assistance from the United States and expelled a Doctors Without Borders team from the country. What the regime wants is to absolve itself of blame for the epidemic while opening channels to earn hard currency, which Tehran can spend on pursuits that are anything but peaceful.
The most noticeable of these pursuits is the targeting of U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq. The regime’s allies in Yemen have also launched missiles at Riyadh. Tehran still commands a vast network of proxies across the Middle East, stretching from the Hindu Kush to the Mediterranean. The regime needs to fund these proxies and knows it can damage U.S. interests in the region and even avenge the assassination of Qassem Soleimani while avoiding a larger war it can ill afford. The threat of renewed war in the Persian Gulf region, combined with the regime’s acceleration of its nuclear program, reinforces Zarif’s efforts to mobilize sections of the U.S. political and foreign policy class to call for an easing of pressure on the regime. Thus, the regime’s military activities across the region, especially in Iraq, the Levant, and the Persian Gulf region, are an integral part of the regime’s disinformation and diplomatic strategy.
Despite having a relatively coherent strategy toward the United States, the Islamic Republic may lack the resources and capability to carry out its policies without inflicting enormous damage to itself and ultimately the Iranian people. Much will depend on whether the current U.S. campaign of maximum pressure continues, as the regime may be counting on a future U.S. administration to give up its leverage in hopes of reviving the nuclear deal. Top regime officials such as Khamenei and Zarif are likely still open to negotiations with the United States as a matter of necessity, but they appear to have decided that the regime can currently withstand maximum pressure and cling to power until the next U.S. election.
Regardless, the regime faces one of its toughest years yet. The COVID-19 pandemic is the latest blow to a regime that in some ways has come to resemble a failing state. The regime continues its highly costly military adventure in Syria, which remains necessary to ensure Bashar al-Assad’s survival, yet is unwilling and/or incapable of protecting the Iranian public’s health and well-being. The epidemic may dissuade Iranians wary of crowds from publicly protesting the regime’s most recent misconduct, but the eventual easing of the epidemic is likely to reignite internal unrest among a deeply dissatisfied society.
The ruling elite in Iran have mostly managed to maintain their unity amidst the crisis, though factionalism and personal rivalry continue to create dysfunction within the political system. Khamenei still reigns supreme, but replacing him may prove trickier than the regime anticipates, especially as a large segment of the population and even some of the elite are unlikely to passively accept a new supreme leader picked by the massively unpopular Khamenei.
The most effective means for the United States to counter Iran’s strategy is to intensify the maximum pressure campaign, which is sapping the regime’s strength and depriving it of the resources to expand its regional power and fund its costly nuclear and missile programs. This does not mean the United States should be indifferent to the plight of tens of millions of Iranians. The United States should continue to offer transparently distributed medical assistance that may benefit the victims of the epidemic. Yet easing pressure on the regime would only hand it greater resources with which to continue its malign policies. Fundamental changes in the regime’s behavior, or even a complete change of the political system in Iran, are possible only if the U.S. maximum pressure policy continues.
Alireza Nader is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP) and Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from Alireza, CEFP, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Alireza on Twitter @AlirezaNader. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.