Tensions between the U.S. and Iran are escalating in a pattern similar to the one that brought the two sides to the brink of war earlier this year — but with one key difference.
This time around, both countries are focusing on the coronavirus pandemic, and that could affect how the situation plays out in the Middle East.
Iran is battling the region’s worst outbreak of the deadly virus. The U.S. military is arguing that could make Iran more dangerous as it looks outward to distract from its coronavirus crisis.
But others contend the situation could make Tehran less likely to lash out at its longtime adversary as its attention is consumed by fighting the virus.
“Certainly, the U.S. and Iranian preoccupation with coronavirus means that there simply may not be enough attention for this issue,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the hawkish Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “The preoccupation is going to necessarily be the public health crisis.”
As of Monday, Iran said it had 14,991 coronavirus cases and 853 deaths from the virus that’s also known as COVID-19. Several Iranian officials have contracted the disease and some have died as a result.
U.S. and international officials, however, have said Iran is likely underreporting the number of illnesses it has.
Still, the official leading Iran’s response to the virus acknowledged Sunday that the country’s health system could be overwhelmed.
“If the trend continues, there will not be enough capacity,” Ali Reza Zali was quoted as saying by the state-run IRNA news agency.
Amid the outbreak, the United States and an Iranian-backed militia are in the middle of a tit-for-tat in Iraq.
On Wednesday, a rocket attack that American officials blamed on the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah killed two U.S. troops and a British service member at Iraq’s Camp Taji military base.
The U.S. military responded a day later with airstrikes on five Kataib Hezbollah sites that officials said the group was using as weapons storage facilities.
On Saturday, the U.S. military reported another rocket attack at Camp Taji that injured three U.S. troops and two Iraqi troops.
After Wednesday’s rocket attack, the political risk consultancy Eurasia Group put the odds of war “low, at 25 percent” because of “the fundamental reality that neither the US nor Iran is interested in war right now.”
“That is doubly true for Iran, grappling with a proliferation of coronavirus cases that has paralyzed the country,” the firm said in a note to clients and the media.
In a separate research note on Iran’s coronavirus response, Eurasia Group analysts said they “are not convinced” that the worse the outbreak gets, “the more aggressive Tehran will be abroad.”
“Iran does not have a history of using foreign adventures to alleviate immediate domestic woes,” they wrote. “More likely, Iran sought to exploit a perceived window of opportunity to cause damage while Trump is bogged down — with the outbreak, volatile financial markets, and a contentious reelection campaign.”
Last week’s military exchange has echoes of events in late December and early January that saw the United States and Iran teeter on the brink of war.
At the time, U.S. officials blamed Kataib Hezbollah for a rocket attack that struck a base near Kirkuk, killing an American contractor and wounding four U.S. service members.
The U.S. military responded to the December attack by striking five Kataib Hezbollah targets in Iraq and Syria. That led to supporters of the militia storming the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
That, in turn, was followed by a U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Iran retaliated with a missile strike that led to brain injuries for more than 100 service members.
The United States did not return fire after that missile attack, as both sides sought to step back from the brink. Since then, tensions appear to have simmered.
Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineSenate Democrats ditch Hyde amendment for first time in decades Fill the Eastern District of Virginia Defense & National Security — Military starts giving guidance on COVID-19 vaccine refusals MORE (D-Va.), who sponsored a resolution after the previous tit-for-tat to prevent military action against Iran, cast doubt on whether the Camp Taji attack would result in the same escalatory cycle as last time, citing internal pressures in Iran like the massive coronavirus outbreak.
“I’m not expecting it to ramp up, because I think the number of other pressures that Iran is under right now is going to have them focused inward,” Kaine told The Hill last week. “But there’s a counter-theory that says that’s when authoritarian nations do something to take their attention off their internal woes.”
The commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East has argued that theory.
Following the U.S. retaliatory strikes, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Frank McKenzie told reporters the threat from Iran “remains very high,” adding that coronavirus pressures could make Tehran more likely to lash out.
“In authoritarian states, they can react to an internal crisis by one of two ways: They can turn inward or they can turn outward,” McKenzie said at a briefing. “History typically tells us authoritarian states turn outward in order to martial the people behind them against a common foe external, either manufactured or real.”
Barbara Slavin, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative, doubted Iranian leaders care enough about their citizens’ outcry over the coronavirus response to use military action as a distraction.
But, she added, Tehran could see an opening to hit back at U.S. interests as the Trump administration focuses on its own coronavirus response.
“Nobody can see into the minds of the supreme leader and the people around him, but even though they are facing an unprecedented health crisis, they also realize that Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump goes after Cassidy after saying he wouldn't support him for president in 2024 Jan. 6 panel lays out criminal contempt case against Bannon Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Agencies sound alarm over ransomware targeting agriculture groups MORE is distracted and that he cannot cope with what he is facing in terms of COVID-19,” Slavin said. “So if you want to get your licks in against the United States, this would perhaps not be a bad time because, I mean, Trump does not dare start a war with Iran now in the midst of everything that's going on.”
Taleblu similarly raised the possibility of Iran seeing an opportunity. But more likely, he said, he expects the “escalation glide path” to proceed as it would without the world facing a pandemic.
“Regardless of coronavirus, regardless of the strike on Soleimani, the U.S. and Iran remain on an escalation glide path, and an escalation glide path is going to necessarily feature peaks and troughs of tension between the US and Iran and its partners and proxies in the region,” he said. “Now coronavirus obviously has had a massive impact inside Iran, and the U.S. is dealing with it as well.”