By Joel Gehrke
March 27, 2020
Iran’s theocratic regime could crumble under the pressure of the coronavirus outbreak that has spread through elite ranks and the broader population alike, according to the European Union’s top diplomat.
“Elsewhere, countries like Venezuela or Iran may well collapse without our support,” EU High Representative Josep Borrell wrote in a recent bulletin to European colleagues. “This means we should ensure they have access to IMF assistance. And with Iran, we need to make sure that legitimate humanitarian trade can proceed despite US sanctions.”
Borrell’s message reflects the long-standing European frustration with President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and renew U.S. sanctions on the regime. Yet it also suggests that some Western leaders are bracing for potentially seismic geopolitical shifts at the epicenters of the coronavirus pandemic, including Tehran.
“We should also remember that none of the other problems that we focused on before the corona crisis [have] gone away,” Borrell wrote. “In fact, they may get worse. COVID-19 may well deepen some of the longer running conflicts in the neighborhood.”
Some Iran hawks in the United States think Borrell is exaggerating the stakes of the Iranian outbreak in order to put pressure on the Trump administration. “This is a transparent attempt by the Europeans to do an end-run around our sanctions, because to them the Iranians are the good guys and Trump is the bad guy,” a senior congressional Republican aide told the Washington Examiner.
Iran has more than 23,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the latest World Health Organization data, including 1,812 deaths. WHO officials suspect that the country has five times as many cases that have gone undetected or unreported, while American officials are monitoring the degree to which the outbreak hamstrings the regime. Nevertheless, Iranian officials barred Doctors Without Borders from operating in the country on Tuesday.
“This signals that the regime doesn’t think corona will bring about their end,” Behnam Ben Taleblu, an expert on the Iranian regime at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Washington Examiner. “It’s grossly irresponsible, but it seems like the regime thinks that the Western influence of Doctors Without Borders is more dangerous than anyone dying from lack of hospital care.”
The decision to ban Doctors Without Borders is particularly audacious given that Iranian leaders have sustained a string of embarrassments that angered local Iranians, including the recent scandal surrounding the downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet in January.
“The regime’s incompetence and political suppression of coronavirus news highlights yet again that the regime is unwilling and unable to respond to the needs of the Iranian people,” the congressional GOP aide said.
The healthcare group’s attempt to provide aid was initially approved by the health ministry, however, so the flip-flop has stirred speculation about power struggles within the regime. Such an internal dispute hints at one scenario that could turn the coronavirus outbreak into an existential crisis: any sign that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, the 80-year-old cleric who has ruled in Tehran since 1989, has caught the virus.
“His health and the succession crisis that will follow matters more so than ever before for the future of the Islamic Republic,” Ben Taleblu said.
The regime’s security services are ready and willing to carry out brutal crackdowns. Fifteen hundred protesters reportedly were killed last November. Any upheaval that produced a new regime in the short term would not likely be an improvement on the current one, Ben Taleblu said.
“For the medium to long term, if corona continues to hamper the country, one wonders what would happen not just to economic activity but to regime elites,” he said. “The more it metastasizes, and the more quarantine measures are shunned, one has to wonder, will that add more fuel to the fire of those who already are discontent with the leadership in Tehran?”
The Washington Examiner