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Iran using virus crisis to revive image, escalate tensions

The hard-liners of Iran — primarily the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — are using the cover of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis to refurbish their image domestically by escalating tensions in the region against the US and its allies, and accelerating plans to settle islands the country unlawfully occupies in the Gulf. This worrying behavior should preclude the lifting of the UN’s conventional arms embargo in October. 


The killing of Qassem Soleimani in early January and the IRGC’s inability to respond in kind shook the image of invincibility Iran’s leaders wanted to project.

A week later, the IRGC shot down a Ukrainian airliner, killing all 176 passengers and crew, causing an international uproar and further weakening that image, especially with its feeble attempt to cover it up. Internally, many Iranians also vehemently protested, as most of the passengers were Iranian or of Iranian origin. Those two events further tarnished the Guards’ image, which was already bloodied by their November 2019 crackdown on civilian protests throughout Iran, when they killed hundreds of unarmed protesters.


In February, the IRGC was able to engineer parliamentary elections, eliminating the little opposition that existed in the old Majlis. The hard-liners won 221 seats to the reformists’ 20, ensuring a rubber-stamp assembly. Having secured a commanding majority in parliament, the hard-liners are not much worried about the second round of parliamentary elections in September. However, they are training their eyes on next year’s presidential election to ensure a hard-liner victory. Equally important, they are gearing up for the battle of succession to the frail Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — an event that could happen at any time because of incapacitation or death.


The coronavirus was detected in Iran during the elections process and its mishandling of the epidemic was another blow to the regime. However, the IRGC quickly turned it into a political opportunity to refurbish its image and weaken the civilian administration.


First, the devastating crisis was blamed on President Hassan Rouhani’s administration, which in turn blamed the US sanctions. Second, the IRGC hyped its own efforts to help contain the disease. It competed with the civilian government in handing out assistance to families affected by the disease and showcased the work of some of its proxies around the region in fighting COVID-19.


Third, the IRGC escalated its activities around the region in another attempt to make up for its earlier failures. In mid-April, the US revealed that armed IRGC Navy vessels had been harassing US ships. President Donald Trump threatened severe consequences if such actions were repeated, but the IRGC, Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif mocked Trump’s threats in unison, basically daring him to take action. Last Wednesday, Iran’s military spokesman Brig. Gen. Abolfazl Shekarchi also threatened a harsh response to any American action, saying: “The Americans have certainly experienced that if they make the slightest move and aggression against the Islamic Republic’s territorial waters and our people’s interests, they will be slapped in the face stronger than the past because we do not joke with anyone in defending our country.”


The hard-liners have also upped the ante vis-a-vis Iran’s neighbors in the Gulf. Last Thursday, IRGC Navy commander Adm. Alireza Tangsiri revived claims about “ownership” of the Gulf, even alluding to claims about Bahrain and Kuwait, thus casting aside previous public statements about the need for reconciliation in the region. Tangsiri said that Khamenei was especially keen on the Persian nature of the Gulf and, for this reason, he had ordered that islands there should be settled with Iranians, including the three UAE islands occupied by Iran since 1971. He admitted that Iran had already built airports on Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb. He revealed Iran’s intention to develop infrastructure on the islands to facilitate civilian settlement.

Defiant bluster is apparently popular among the regime’s faithful in Iran. Equally popular are outdated nationalistic claims that are difficult to fathom from the outside. Iran is a mosaic of nations and it is therefore incomprehensible that claims of Persian superiority or dominance can be acceptable within Iran. It is especially surprising when heard from high officials who should know better. Such chauvinistic discourse is, of course, rejected by Iran’s neighbors and their partners in the Gulf, who also reject Iran’s malign activities, which rely on creating violent sectarian strife as a ploy to destabilize the region.


The hard-liners’ dangerous demagoguery, whether nationalistic or religious, should also be opposed by the international community. It has been used to justify the IRGC’s reign of terror within Iran and abroad, and now to provoke another confrontation with the US and its allies. 


Iran’s record over the past five years, since the signing of the nuclear deal in July 2015, shows an unrepentant regime with no serious interest in peace; perfunctory statements about reconciliation notwithstanding. It would be dangerous, therefore, to reward it in October by lifting the conventional arms embargo included in UN Security Council resolution 2231, which endorsed the nuclear deal. Lifting the embargo was contemplated in the hope that the nuclear deal would lead to a softening of Iran’s regional policy — a hope that never became reality.

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