Associated Press/Alex Brandon
- The risk of conflict between the US and Iran is still very real amid the coronavirus pandemic.
- President Donald Trump on Wednesday warned Iran it would "pay a very heavy price" if US forces in the Middle East are attacked by it or its proxies.
- Meanwhile, the US has continued to hit Iran with sanctions amid the pandemic, prompting growing calls for the US to pump the brakes on pummeling the Iranian economy as it struggles to deal with coronavirus.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Not even a pandemic can stop the ongoing hostilities between the US and Iran.
As coronavirus has pummeled Iran, the Trump administration has continued to hammer the country with harsh economic sanctions as part of its "maximum pressure" campaign.
And President Donald Trump on Wednesday threatened Iran with a retaliatory military strike if US forces in the region are attacked.
Trump tweeted: "Upon information and belief, Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on US troops and/or assets in Iraq. If this happens, Iran will pay a very heavy price, indeed!"
Intelligence has reportedly suggested that Iranian proxy forces have been plotting against the US. But it's unclear if there is evidence of a more specific plan or plot.
—Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 1, 2020
Iran's top diplomat, Javad Zarif, fired back at Trump.
"Don't be mislead by usual warmongers, AGAIN, @realDonaldTrump," Zarif tweeted on Thursday. "Iran has FRIENDS: No one can have MILLIONS of 'proxies.'"
"Unlike the US — which surreptitiously lies, cheats & assassinates — Iran only acts in self-defense. Openly Iran starts no wars, but teaches lessons to those who do," Zarif added.
Similarly, the Iranian army chief of staff, Mohammad Bagheri, on Thursday warned any military action by the US could "face the most severe reactions" from Iran.
This came just weeks after the US carried out strikes on an Iran-backed militia in Iraq after two American service members and a British soldier were killed in a rocket attack in early March.
Privately, Trump's top advisers, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have pushed Trump to hit Iranian forces directly, the New York Times reported in late March. Trump has reportedly pushed back on such suggestions, contending an attack on Iran amid a pandemic would be inappropriate. Meanwhile, Democractic leaders on March 27 sent a letter to Trump cautioning him against any military action against Iran without congressional approval.
Iran has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic
Iran has been hit especially hard by coronavirus. There have been over 50,000 reported cases of coronavirus in the country, which has a population of roughly 85 million, and over 3,100 deaths, according to the latest Iranian health ministry figures, per The Guardian. Comparatively, with a population of roughly 327 million, the US has over 230,000 reported coronavirus cases and over 5,700 people have died from it.
The coronavirus pandemic has ravaged Iran's government, infecting numerous members of parliament and top officials — including Iran's vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri. A top adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei died last month from the virus, and the speaker of Iran's parliament, Ali Larijani, tested positive for it this week.
Associated Press/Vahid Salemi
Iran was already in rough shape before coronavirus began to spread.
Since Trump's controversial decision to pull the US from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, his administration has slapped Tehran with a relentless series of economic sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.
The administration has maintained that the harsh sanctions, which have choked off Iran's main source of revenue (oil), will push Iran into sitting down and negotiating a more stringent version of the 2015 agreement. There is little to no evidence to support this position, as the sanctions have increased Iran's aggressive activities in the region and exacerbated tensions between Washington and Tehran.
In early January, Trump ordered a drone strike that killed Iran's top general, Qassem Soleimani, which pushed the US and Iran to the brink of war. Though the two countries ultimately stepped back from a broader conflict, hostilities have not dissipated and the "maximum pressure" strategy of economic sanctions has continued. The US has even hit Iran with new sanctions amid the coronavirus pandemic.
There are growing calls for the US to ease economic sanctions on Iran
Iran has largely botched its response to coronavirus by initially denying the magnitude of the crisis and suppressing information on the outbreak. But the Iranian government is also blaming US sanctions for its bungled handling of the pandemic, and urging Washington to lift them on humanitarian grounds.
"We had always said the sanctions are unjust but coronavirus revealed this injustice to the world," Zarif said in a recent video message, referring to the sanctions as "economic terrorism."
There are now growing calls in the international community, and within the US, for the sanctions to be lifted.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, recently urged countries to ease sanctions on nations such as Iran.
"At this crucial time, both for global public health reasons, and to support the rights and lives of millions of people in these countries, sectoral sanctions should be eased or suspended. In a context of global pandemic, impeding medical efforts in one country heightens the risk for all of us," Bachelet said in late March.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the leading contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, on Thursday also called on Trump to ease the sanctions on Iran.
"Iran is struggling to contain one of the deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks in the world. While the Iranian government has failed to respond effectively to this crisis, including lying and concealing the truth from its own people, and it continues to act provocatively in the region, the Iranian people are hurting desperately," Biden wrote in a post on Medium.
"It is bad enough that the Trump administration abandoned the Iran nuclear deal in favor of a 'maximum pressure' strategy that has badly backfired, encouraging Iran to become even more aggressive and restart its nuclear program," Biden added. "It makes no sense, in a global health crisis, to compound that failure with cruelty by inhibiting access to needed humanitarian assistance. Whatever our profound differences with the Iranian government, we should support the Iranian people."
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