Iran is in the middle of its own coronavirus crisis. The World Health Organization has confirmed 13,000 cases in the country,but the number could be higher. In the face of this health crisis, the oil price collapse and ongoing U.S. sanctions are making it significantly more difficult for Iran to purchase needed medicine and medical supplies. Meanwhile, the militarized confrontations between Iran (and its proxies) and the United States and Iran and Saudi Arabia do not appear to have calmed even with all of those governments dealing with the effects of the pandemic. There have been calls for, and some minor reporting on, the possibility of easing sanctions on Iran to allow for greater importation of needed medical goods to combat COVID-19. However, it is unlikely that Washington will ease sanctions anytime soon, and the situation between Washington and Tehran could worsen either due to the actions of either government or due to the actions of Iranian proxies in Iraq and/or Yemen.
Hawks in the Administration
Numerous press and media outlets have reported on the deliberations that took place within the Trump administration prior to Washington’s retaliation against Iranian-backed Iraqi militias for killing two U.S. service members with rocket attacks.During those deliberations, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly urged President Trump to conduct a significantly larger military strike against Iran in retaliation for the attacks of the militia group.The Secretary of Defense and senior uniformed military officials argued against a larger strike, concerned about escalation of the conflict. For the moment, the Pentagon prevailed in the argument. However, Secretary of Defense Esper told the press the other day that he had authorized the U.S. regional commander to plan for more significant responses and warned Iran that the next attack on U.S. forces or interests would not go unanswered. The promise to conduct such planning was likely part of the bargain necessary to appease the more hawkish wing of the administration. Next time a U.S. service member is killed, the planning will likely be complete, providing President Trump with more military options that hurt Iran more directly and more seriously. While Iran’s proxies in Iraq and Yemen are supplied, trained, and often directed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp (often its Quds force), it is not clear that they are perfectly controlled from Tehran.The militia units or the Houthis could undertake attacks without explicit direction, setting off an escalatory spiral.
With hawkish foreign policy advisors hoping COVID-19 supplements “maximum pressure”, it is difficult to see the U.S.easing up on sanctions. It is not clear where the advocacy for such an easing would either come from in the administration or how it might gain purchase.
Pentagon leaders may have been relatively less hawkish in the discussion of military retaliation due to worries about escalation, but they have no vested interest in easing sanctions on Tehran. There is little effective agitation for easing in Congress – which is now out on recess and which is also focused on COVID-19-related measures. As has been seen both in foreign policy and in President Trump’s handling of the coronavirus within the United States, he never gives something without getting something in return. If there were to be any U.S. easing of sanctions, Iran would have to give something to President Trump in terms of a policy win first. It is difficult to see Tehran’s leaders, under pressure due to sanctions, oil revenues, and now coronavirus, being in either a mood or a position to kowtow to Washington, but if the Iranian economy sputters further, all bets are off.