Covid-19 is undoubtedly the biggest health crisis in our lifetime. Pundits around the world, but also a long list of policymakers from Washington to Abu Dhabi to Beijing, wonder about the long-term implications of this deadly pandemic. While there is plenty of speculation about how this crisis might re-balance global power dynamics, other foreign policy implications are more immediately tangible.
In the case of the Middle East, the swift support shown by the UAE towards Iran, the most affected country in the region, has been refreshing. The UAE has provided the greatest amount of aid, and the Iranian foreign ministry has vowed not to forget those who stood by its people. In fact, in this hour of crisis, new ways of thinking about the regional collective good should be welcomed and encouraged.
Hopefully, the senior leadership in Tehran will look at the Covid-19 crisis as yet another reminder that it is high time for nation-building at home and bridge-building with neighbouring states. To do that, Iran must reassess its priorities.
In early January, as the coronavirus was first making its way into Iran, Tehran’s leadership was entirely distracted by its competition with the United States for power in the Middle East. On January 3, the Americans assassinated Iran’s top general, Qassem Suleimani, outside of Baghdad International Airport. Since 2003, Suleimani had spearheaded Iran’s ambitions to export its militant Islamist ideology to places such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Washington did not see him just as a geopolitical foe, but a man with American blood on his hands.
What followed Suleimani’s assassination was not, however, a moment of introspection, but instinctive and deadly decisions in Tehran that brought Iran and the US to the brink of war. First, Iran retaliated by firing off a volley of ballistic missiles aimed at US military forces based in Iraq. Then, in the fog-of-war, Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards shot down a Ukrainian airliner outside Tehran. One hundred and seventy-six innocent lives were lost.
An astonished Iranian public wanted answers and reassurances but did not know who to turn to for solace. It has not come from the most senior figure in the Islamic Republic. In a speech shortly after, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, focused not on the lives lost in the tragic shooting down of the airliner by the Revolutionary Guards, but rather how that same force had performed “gloriously”, in his words, in undertaking ballistic missile attacks against Americans in Iraq. The 176 dead from the airliner were merely collateral damage. That is the only conclusion one could take away from Khamenei’s speech. Khamenei’s priorities yet again reinforced the disconnect by the top echelon of power in Tehran from the realities and demands of ordinary Iranians.
In that same speech on January 17, Khamenei opted to deliver part of his remarks in Arabic and not in his native Persian. Reading from notes, Khamenei’s message to the Arab masses was that the United States is the source of all tensions in the Middle East. This implausible message, after all, has been the core pitch of the Islamic Republic to the Arab world – including the Gulf States – since the Iranian revolution in 1979.
But majority public opinion in the Arab World long ago gave up any illusions about the merits of militant Islamism as practiced by Tehran. Nor does the average Arab want to see Iran and the US turn their countries into battlegrounds as part of a zero-sum-game competition for power in the region.
Not everyone in the leadership in Tehran believes the authorities here can continue to disregard Iranian public opinion as far as the continuation of the costly foreign policy is concerned. There are a number of aliments afflicting Iran today, but the pain of US-imposed sanctions on the country tops the list. According to the elected President Hassan Rouhani, who is far more sensitive to public opinion than Ayatollah Khamenei, US sanctions have so far cost Iran around $200 billion. But he has not yet been willing to call out the problem by name. Tehran claims that its access to cash is so limited that, under the burden of its ongoing crisis with coronavirus, it has applied for a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. It was the first time it has done so in 60 years.
Tehran is resisting and has vowed not to succumb to what it calls American bullying, and that it will stay the course in terms of its regional ambitions. If so, this is both a missed opportunity and a grave misreading its foreign policy predicament. It does not need to look to Washington’s pressure as a reason to change course. The Iranian public and its anger against a costly foreign policy that clearly only hurts the average Iranian is what should give the Iranian authorities reason to recalibrate.
The world will anxiously watch to see if the coronavirus crisis can become a catalyst for Iran to change course. By all measures, from statements made even by some Iranian officials themselves to periodic violent protests across Iran to denounce mismanagement and misplaced priorities, the average Iranian wants the authorities to prioritise the homeland.
Ayatollah Khamenei and the generals in the Revolutionary Guards that keep the Islamic Republic in power have a choice in front of them. They will find that many Arab countries are ready to stand by to help, should Iran actively look for ways to reduce tensions across the region with the United States and her allies. But in order to get the help that Iranian society desperately needs while the virus ravages its people and institutions, Tehran will have to re-think what is truly important at this critical time.
Alex Vatanka is Director of the Iran Programme at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C.