In recent weeks, Iran’s suffering has been dramatically heightened by four converging disasters. The first is the multiplying deaths caused by COVID-19. Iran’s health ministry grimly estimates that one person dies from the virus every ten minutes and 50 are infected every hour. By March 31, over 44,000 Iranians had been infected and almost 2,900 perished, making Iran the locus of one of the highest cases and deaths due to this scourge. The second disaster facing Tehran results from the intersecting costs of massive corruption and pervasive economic inefficiency. The coronavirus could be the proverbial last straw that breaks Iran’s oil-dependent economy.
Third, the bureaucratic ineptitude and ideological obscurantism of a repressive clerical establishment has undercut efforts to confront the disease. Last, but not least, are the deleterious effects of US sanctions. Contrary to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s claim that the United States is doing “everything we can to facilitate the humanitarian assistance,” sanctions have in fact blocked desperately needed medicines and equipment from getting to Iran. Nevertheless, as US Special Representative for Iranian Affairs Brian Hook emphasized, the United States has no intention of letting up on “our policy of maximum pressure,” a position underscored by the imposition of fresh US sanctions on March 18.
The release on medical grounds of Michael White, an American Navy veteran held in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison, might suggest that on a tactical level the White House’s pressure is working. But this is hardly a substitute for a clear strategy that could meet the challenges of a modern plague whose spreading fire could engulf the entire Middle East region. Responding to this unfolding disaster in Iran, several members of Congress have called for suspending or modifying sanctions while two US policy experts have proposed using the crisis to engage Iranian leaders. In this season of pestilence, however, hardened hearts in both Tehran and Washington are blocking any kind of diplomatic deliverance.
Iranian leaders failing their people
It is one of the ironies of Iran’s escalating misery that several weeks before the coronavirus erupted, Tehran sent China a million face masks to help it fight the epidemic there. By then it appears that the virus was being transmitted, possibly by Chinese workers, and very likely by a reported 700 Chinese students from Wuhan studying in a Qom seminary. From there it was spread to all of Iran’s 31 provinces by intercity travel, the proximity of mass prayer, the density of daily urban life, and public celebrations of the Iranian New Year, Nowruz. Eager not to obstruct economic activity or to disrupt annual pilgrimages to two holy shrine cities—and determined to foster participation in the February 21 parliamentary elections—Iranian leaders downplayed the threat. In what has since become an iconic moment beamed the world over via the internet, Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi—whose profuse sweating before the cameras turned out to be a symptom of COVID-19—denied claims of infections in Iran. Qom Friday prayer leader Ayatollah Mohammed Saeedi echoed these sentiments but gave them a religious hue. He would not shutter Fatima Masumeh Shrine, he declared, insisting that the very idea was rooted in an American plot hatched by Trump himself, “who will die frustrated in his wish to see Qom defeated.”
This conspiracy theory gained the ultimate stamp of approval from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. With the government finally making an effort to confront COVID-19, Khamenei declared on March 22 that the Americans “have said several times that they are prepared to help us in the area of treatment and medication.” This was a “strange” statement, he said, not only because in responding to the virus American leaders had demonstrated ineptitude but because they could not be trusted. Khamenei continued: “The medicines that you prescribe or export into our country might make the virus last even longer or prevent it from being controlled. If this accusation is legitimate and if you have produced the virus, well, you are capable of doing these things!”
These paranoid sentiments complicated the efforts of Iranian leaders to confront the virus at home or to seek assistance from abroad. In mid-February, with the backing of the Supreme National Security Council and Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani established a “national headquarters for fighting the coronavirus.” On March 28, he also announced that Iran will devote 20 percent of its state budget to combat the virus. But Rouhani, effectively, is now a lame duck—a fact that owes much to the Trump Administration’s decision to abandon the nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions. Thus, he is hardly well placed to counter or contradict the xenophobic rhetoric of his hardline rivals who aim to deflect domestic attention from their own failings. To be sure, the White House’s refusal to budge on the sanctions issue has played into the hands of hardliners. On March 12, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif sent a letter to the secretary-general of the United Nations condemning the United States for “economic terrorism.” The use of secondary sanctions, he wrote, constituted a form of “ransom” that has made it “virtually impossible … to import medicine and medical equipment.” Zarif’s tough line only underscored his lack of influence on the home front. Like Rouhani, he finds himself reduced to a near-bystander role in the context of a US-Iranian conflict that has strengthened Iranian hardliners in the political arena and especially in the security sector.
COVID-19 and domestic power struggles
As Iran’s leaders began to ring the alarm bells, they had trouble convincing their citizens that it was critical to remain indoors and to avoid crowds and public celebrations, especially Nowruz. It fell to the military and security forces to close businesses, halt traffic, and prevent public celebrations. Perhaps concerned that such actions might highlight his own limited authority or strengthen his rivals, Rouhani reportedly tried to dissuade the military from taking such draconian steps. By late March, efforts to impose or enforce closures in mosques, shrines, and schools accelerated, along with the “temporary” release of a reported 85,000 prisoners and a widening bid to persuade or compel some 200,000 residents of Qom—who had fanned out across the country—to return home.
In some cases, the regime’s efforts produced friction between state and religious authorities. For example, religious zealots tried to break into two shrines to force their reopening. That the custodian of one shrine, Ayatollah Sayid Sadiq Al-Hussaini Al-Shirazi, is a prominent Qom cleric who has defied Khamenei—even calling him a “pharaoh”—was not lost on the regime. Indeed, the government deployed the official media to launch a campaign against Shirazi and to portray his supporters as “extremists” deserving of imprisonment. In this way, the battle over containing COVID-19 echoed long-standing political and ideological fissures that touch on the very nature of political power in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
It is perhaps for this very reason that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is playing a leading role in the fight against COVID-19. With a public still enraged by the bloody repression of street protests in December 2019, and the IRGC’s reputation stained by its downing in January of a Ukrainian airliner (most of whose 176 passengers were Iranian), the IRGC has come out in force. Deployed in “modern warfare units” clad in masks and full protective body gear, IRGC troops are building temporary hospitals and spraying streets and buildings with disinfectants. Positioning itself as both a savior of the state and a hero of the people, the IRGC—whose actions are amply covered by the state media—behaves in a way that suggests the security sector, rather than elected politicians, is the far greater source of power, authority, and efficacy in today’s Iran. Underscoring this point, Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani asserted that the IRGC “has stood by the people in the hardest times and acted diligently. Today, too, it has mobilized all of its capacities to help the people.”
The idea of wartime mobilization is deeply embedded in Iran, whose eight-year war with Iraq in the1980s not only fed the ideology of martyrdom but provided the foundation for a vastly expanded security apparatus. Whether the regime’s anti-coronavirus campaign portends a wider securitization of the political system remains a crucial question. But clearly, security officials are using the battle against COVID-19 to strengthen their already strong hand. As Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani recently stated in a released message: “The passage of time and the tests the IRGC (has successfully passed) in the face of crises have shown that this divine institution is the main basis of the Islamic Revolution and the Establishment’s growing power in confrontation with crises.” Linking the IRGC’s campaign against COVID-19 with Iran’s most formidable external enemy, Shamkhani insists that the United States must address “international demands regarding its role in creating and spreading the coronavirus.”
Regional and global implications
Shamkahni’s accusations, which—as noted above—seem to be shared by Supreme Leader Khamenei, probably find a receptive ear in a society that feels under siege from within and without. The Trump Administration’s refusal to suspend or mitigate sanctions is fueling Iranian conspiracy theories. From Iran’s vantage point, its foes include not merely Israel but also Arab governments that have refused to support Tehran’s quest for humanitarian relief. Voicing these frustrations, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Abbas Mousavi, assailed Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Morocco, and the Yemen government in exile for opposing any effort by the Non-Aligned Movement to issue a statement calling upon the United States to end sanctions. “It is a subject of much regret,” he noted, “that some Arab and Muslim governments, which are mostly our neighbors, have taken such a measure against the Iranian people under such critical circumstances.”
These neighbors apparently do not include the United Arab Emirates which, despite its long-standing tensions with Iran, has sent two planes with 32 tons of medical supplies to Tehran. Noting the common interests of all countries in the region, UAE officials have stated that their country is “committed to doing all it can to stamp out the virus, both at home and around the Gulf region.” It is important to note that so far, such sentiments are not reflected in any significant reduction in regional tensions, especially between Iranian and Iran-allied forces and US forces in Iraq and Syria. The March 11 rocket attack against the Taji air base north of Baghdad, killing three servicemen including two Americans, has once again raised the prospect of a wider US-Iran military confrontation. However, while the White House blamed the attack on Kataeb Hezbollah (an Iraqi Shia force closely tied to Tehran), the US Defense Department has reportedly pushed back against those US officials who favor a strong military response. None of the forces in the region, all of which face the prospect that COVID-19 could spread rapidly among their ranks, can risk an extended confrontation. Therefore, while Tehran’s regional allies are still smarting from the US assassination of the IRGC’s Major General Qassem Soleimani and are determined to exact further revenge, they are likely to come under pressure from Iranian leaders for whom the specter of an all-out direct or indirect conflict with the United States would be a nightmare.
Given its limited military options, Tehran’s best bet now is to reinforce its alliances with key world powers such as Russia and China. Provoked by White House accusations that China failed to contain the COVID-19 virus in a timely way, Chinese officials have echoed Iranian conspiracy theories and, what is more, have ramped up their diplomatic cooperation with Tehran. Paradoxically, while China’s growing trade relations with Iran may have contributed to the spread of the virus in Iran, both countries appear determined to support one another, thus countering a US administration that at home and abroad is under increasing pressure to ease sanctions. With the World Health Organization suggesting that the virus may be five times higher than reported by Iranian officials, time is of the essence. By some estimates, Iran could face as many as 3.5 million fatalities if the virus continues at its present unrelenting gallop.
Escapist fantasies and failed leadership in Iran and the United States
It is no small paradox that both American and Iranian leaders have failed their populations, not only by hesitating to take timely action but also by tolerating or even encouraging the conspiracy theories that some of their supporters have embraced. Moreover, to the dismay of officials in both countries, religious figures have told their parishioners that because they presumably have a higher authority on their side, they should join together in communal prayer rather than self-isolate. These appeals are exacting a terrible human cost. At the very moment that the world needs a shared strategy, there is no global response to this global scourge. One can only hope that despite their shared fears and suspicions, the magnitude of the calamity unfolding before them will compel US and Iranian leaders to imagine a mutual path forward.
This article has been republished with permission from the Arab Center Washington DC.
Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC, Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University, and a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). From 2008 through 2015 he also served as a Special Adviser at the United States Institute of Peace.
Mike Pompeo at the 2019 United Against Nuclear Iran conference (credit: U.S. State Department)
Left-to-right: Senator-elect Ted Budd (R-N.C.); Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader; Senator-elect Katie Britt (R-AL); and Senator-elect J.D. Vance (R-OH) pose for a photo before meeting in Leader McConnell’s office, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, November 15, 2022. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)
The so-called GOP “civil war” over the role the United States should play in the world made headlines earlier this week when the Senate finally passed a national security supplemental that provides $60 billion in aid for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel.
The legislation, which was supported by President Joe Biden and the overwhelming majority of the Senate’s Democratic caucus, proved more controversial among Republicans. Twenty-two GOP Senators voted in favor of the legislation, while 27 opposed it.
An analysis of the votes shows an interesting generational divide within the Republican caucus.
Each of the five oldest Republicans in the Senate — and nine of the ten oldest — voted in favor of the supplemental spending package. Conversely, the six youngest senators, and 12 of the 14 youngest, opposed it.
Equally striking was the breakdown of votes among Republicans based on when they assumed their current office. Of the 49 sitting GOP Senators, 30 were elected before Donald Trump first became the party’s presidential candidate in 2016. Eighteen of those 30 supported the aid legislation. Of the members who came to office in 2017 or later, only four voted to advance the bill, while 15 voted against.
The difference in votes among those elected since 2016 is likely partly attributable to Trump’s unconventional approach to foreign policy. The Republican party establishment during the Cold War and Global War on Terror is often associated with hawkishness, including towards Russia. While the party has always carried some skepticism toward foreign aid, some of the most significant spending increases have taken place during the presidencies of Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Trump, however, won in 2016 in part for his open disdain for mission creep after the GWOT, what he called the failed war in Iraq, and foreign aid he believed made countries dependents rather than reciprocal partners and allies.
“[Trump] certainly created the cognitive space,” Brandan Buck, a U.S. Army veteran and historian of GOP foreign policy, tells RS. “He's more of an intuitive thinker than a person of principle, but I think him being on the scene, prying open the Overton window has allowed for a greater array of dissenting voices.”
Others have argued that the trends are perhaps also indicative of the loyalty that Republicans who assumed their offices during the Trump presidency feel toward him. Trump spoke out forcefully against the legislation in advance of the vote.
“WE SHOULD NEVER GIVE MONEY ANYMORE WITHOUT THE HOPE OF A PAYBACK, OR WITHOUT “STRINGS” ATTACHED. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA SHOULD BE “STUPID” NO LONGER!,” the former president wrote on the social media platform Truth Social the weekend before the vote.
The vote cannot only be explained by ideology, as some typically hawkish allies of Trump, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) ultimately voted against the package. Graham is a staunch supporter of Israel, has voted for previous Ukraine aid packages, and in the past called aid for Ukraine “a good investment” and “the best money we’ve ever spent.” By the time the vote on the most recent spending package came around, Graham was lamenting the lack of border security provisions and echoing Trump’s argument that aid to Ukraine should be a “loan.”
Meanwhile, Senators took note of the generational gap, and the debate spilled over into the public. .
“Nearly every Republican Senator under the age of 55 voted NO on this America Last bill,” wrote Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), 48, on the social media platform X. “Things are changing just not fast enough.” Schmitt was elected in 2022.
“Youthful naivety is bliss, the wisdom of age may save the west,” retorted Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) “Reagan may be dead, but his doctrine saved the world during less dangerous times than these. If the modern Marx (Putin for the youngsters) restores the USSR while we pretend it’s not our problem, God help us.” Cramer, 63, was sworn in in 2019, making him one of the handful of recently elected senators to support the aid legislation.
“I like Kevin, but come on, man, have some self-awareness,” Sen. J.D. Vance fired back. “This moment calls out for many things, but boomer neoconservatism is not among them.”
Vance, who at 39 is the youngest Republican member of the Senate, noted in his post that “the fruits of this generation in American leadership is: quagmire in Afghanistan, war in Iraq under false pretenses.” He said younger Americans were disillusioned with that track record.
Buck, who served several tours in the Afghanistan war, and whose research includes generational trends in U.S. foreign policy thinking, pointed out that there is strong historical precedent for believing that age and generation affect how members of Congress view America’s role in the world.
“It's certainly not unusual for there to be generational trends in foreign policy thinking, especially within the Republican Party,” Buck told RS. Following the end of World War II, he said, it took “a full churning” of the conservative movement to replace old-school non-interventionist Republicans and to get the party in line with the Cold War consensus. “I think what we're seeing now is something similar but in reverse with a generation of conservatives.”
He added that the failures of the War on Terror resulted in a deep skepticism of the national security state and the Republican party establishment. Opinion polling and trends show that the American public that grew up either during or in the shadow of the disastrous military campaigns in the Greater Middle East is generally opposed to military intervention and more questioning of American institutions.
“All the energy on FP [foreign policy] in the GOP right now is with the younger generation that wants fundamental transformation of USFP [U.S. foreign policy],” noted Justin Logan, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, on X. “The self-satisfied, insular neocons who loathe their voters’ FP views are a dying breed.”
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Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 17, 2024. (David Hecker/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY — If U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris dominated the first day of the Munich Security Conference with her remarks, today it was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s turn.
It was not only Zelensky who understandably devoted his whole speech to the Ukraine War but also Scholz, too. The German Chancellor, while boasting that his country will devote 2% of its GDP to defense expenditures this year, remarked that “we Europeans need to do much more for our security now and in the future.”
In a brief but clear reference to Trump’s recent statements on NATO, Scholz said, "any relativization of NATO’s mutual defense guarantee will only benefit those who, just like Putin, want to weaken us.” On the guns and butter debate, which is particularly relevant in Germany due to negligible economic growth, Scholz acknowledged that critical voices are saying, “should not we be using the money for other things?” But he chose not to engage in this debate, noting instead that “Moscow is fanning the flames of such doubts with targeted disinformation campaigns and with propaganda on social media.”
The Russian capture of the city represents the most significant defeat for Ukraine since the failure of its counter-offensive last year. On the loss of Avdiivka, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost one soldier for every seven soldiers who have died on the Russian side. This, however, is difficult to reconcile with the reports about the rushed Ukrainian retreat, with a Ukrainian soldier explaining that “the road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”
Throughout his speech, Zelensky repeatedly referred to the importance of defending what he called the “rules-based world order” by defeating Russia. If there was one take-away that Zelensky wanted impressed on this audience: “Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself why is Putin still able to continue it.”
He also seemed to suggest that it was not a lack of available weapons and artillery but a willingness to give them over to Ukraine. “Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” Zelenskyy said. “The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”
The future of NATO was one of the main topics of the day. European leaders were in agreement that Europe needs to spend more on defense, and occasionally appeared to compete with each other on who has spent the most on weapons delivered to Ukraine or in their national defense budgets.
With NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in attendance, one of the panels featured two of the most talked-about names to replace the Norwegian politician in the 75th-anniversary summit in Washington in July: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. According to a report by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, President Joseph Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken favor the German leader, but in Paris, London, and Berlin, the Dutch politician is preferred.
The participation of the Netherlands in the initial U.S.-UK joint strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen on Jan. 11 was read in some quarters as a sign of Rutte’s ambitions. The Netherlands was the only EU country to join these initial attacks.
A G7 meeting of foreign ministers also took place Saturday on the sidelines of the conference. In a press briefing that followed, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani — who currently presides the G7 — reiterated the group’s support for Ukraine. The current situation in the Red Sea, as is often the case in the West, was presented by Tajani as a topic divorced from the Gaza Strip. The Houthis started their campaign against ships in the Red Sea after the beginning of the war in Gaza, claiming they want to force an end to the conflict.
There is no certainty that the end of the war in Gaza would put an end to Houthi attacks, but presenting the situation in the Red Sea as being nothing but a threat to freedom of trade is considered by experts to be a a myopic approach.
Nevertheless, Italy will be in command of the new EU naval mission ASPIDES, to be deployed soon in the Red Sea. The mission is expected to be approved by the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday. When asked whether he could ensure that ASPIDES would remain a defensive mission, the Italian Foreign Minister said ASPIDES aims at defending merchant ships and that if drones or missiles are launched, they will be shot down, but no attacks will be conducted.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing and is being updated.
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Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 16, 2024. (Lukas Barth-Tuttas/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.