Does Iran's coronavirus crisis raise the risk of war?

Mike Bebernes
·Editor
·5 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

President Trump on Wednesday issued a warning via Twitter about a potential “sneak attack” on U.S. troops in Iraq by Iran or its proxy forces. He said there would be a “very heavy price” if the alleged assault was carried out. A top Iranian official denounced the accusation: “Iran starts no wars, but teaches lessons to those who do.”

Tensions with Iran, an ongoing feature of the Trump presidency, have not abated even as both countries battle the coronavirus. The U.S. has the most known cases of any country. Iran is facing one of the most severe outbreaks in the world. Iran’s official death toll is more than 3,000, though public health experts estimate that may be only a fraction of the true number of fatalities. The virus could kill as many as 3.5 million Iranians, one study found.

Much of the blame for the situation in Iran has fallen on the country’s leadership, which has been accused of downplaying the threat and underreporting the number of cases. At the same time, the Trump administration has been criticized — by both Iranian leaders and neutral observers — for refusing to lift sanctions that limit Iran’s ability to contain the virus. The sanctions make it harder for Iran to buy desperately needed medical supplies and receive foreign assistance.

Why there’s debate

The crisis in Iran has raised fears that the country’s leadership, already embattled due to a weak economy, may choose to lash out against a unifying enemy if it feels its grip on power slipping as the impact of the virus escalates. This same motivation may push Iran to accelerate its pursuit of a nuclear weapon, which could risk retaliation from the U.S.

Members of the Trump administration may see Iran’s weakened state as an opportunity to be more aggressive in its “maximum pressure campaign” against the country, some experts say. Any actions on America’s part risk prompting an escalating response from Iran.

Others say the pandemic presents a chance for the two countries to improve their relationship and step back from the brink of open conflict. The U.S. could temporarily ease sanctions or provide some aid to Iran in a gesture of compassion that sets the stage for diplomatic talks going forward, some international relations experts say.

Perspectives

Iranian leaders may lash out against the U.S. to curb political pressure

“The coronavirus outbreak has now put more pressure on the leadership’s calculus. Feeling besieged and with no obvious diplomatic exit ramp, Iran might conclude that only a confrontation with the United States might change a trajectory that’s heading in a very dangerous direction.” — Robert Malley and Ali Vaez, Foreign Policy

Assuming that Iran is too weak to respond to U.S. aggression could backfire

“Washington … is considering a big escalation to destroy Iranian proxies in Iraq. That would be taking a flamethrower to a region carpeted with tinder in the middle of the COVID-19 menace.” — David Gardner, Financial Times

Iran hawks in the Trump administration may see this as an opportunity for aggression

“Strangling the Iranian economy isn’t enough for Trump and Co. They are bent on using the spread of a deadly disease as cover for a new war.” — Mehdi Hasan, Intercept

Iran may accelerate its nuclear program if its leaders feel threatened

“Desperation in Tehran, coupled with deep anger over U.S. policy and Europe’s inability to mitigate it, is so pervasive that the regime may soon decide to raise the stakes by quitting the [nuclear nonproliferation treaty] to increase its leverage, even at the risk of U.S. and Israeli military retaliation.” — Simon Tisdall, Guardian

Offering a lifeline to Iran could serve America’s interests

“American generosity might be the best way of persuading Iran to release American and other foreign detainees. Ideally, that could lead to a lowering of tensions, a reduction of attacks on American targets in Iraq by Iranian allies, and even, down the line, serious discussions on freezing Iran’s nuclear escalation.” — Editorial, New York Times

The virus could create instability in the Middle East that raises the long-term risk of war

“As Americans turn inward and the U.S. government becomes preoccupied by domestic considerations, the world remains a tinderbox. This pandemic could turn out to be a match that lights a brushfire, fueling strife within other countries and raising the probability of wars. There are blinking red lights that the world is on the verge of becoming a more dangerous place.” — James Hohmann, Washington Post

Easing sanctions will deescalate tensions

“There are many problems between the United States and Iran that, no matter the chaos, will not simply melt away. But there should be a serious effort to include Iran in any U.S. efforts to help mitigate the virus throughout the world. … Perhaps the U.S. could offer a ‘ceasefire’ to Iran, in the name of humanity, by relaxing sanctions and looking for ways to help that country.” — Christopher R. Hill, The Hill

Political posturing doesn’t matter when so many lives are at risk

“We can spend months deliberating over what this repressive government has brought on itself and what it deserves. But during that time, many more people will die in Iran, and the virus will continue to spread. This collective punishment of the Iranian people will only endanger our own efforts by letting the epidemic spread beyond its borders.” — Hadi Ghaemi, NBC News

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