As Coronavirus Strikes, Iran Forced to Rethink Its Proxy Wars

The other side of the coronavirus coin for Israel concerns its antagonists in the region. There is still a certain amount of security friction – on Wednesday, two American and one British soldiers were killed in a rocket attack by a pro-Iranian militia in Iraq – but it is evident from its extent and frequency that this it has become a lower priority on the regional agenda.

– Haaretz Weekly Episode 67

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The virus has taken a large toll on Iran. The country was struck right at the first stage of its now pandemic spread, apparently partly because authorities delayed closing air traffic with China. The Iranians did not want to anger Beijing, in the context of the extensive trade between the two countries.

Since the virus initially spread mainly along the route between the sacred city of Qom and Tehran, it infected a relatively large number of senior people in the regime, who spend a lot of time in both cities. As of this Thursday morning, Iran has reported more than 10,000 people sick and more than 420 dead. However, the reliability of the regime had already taken a harsh blow with the erroneous downing of the Ukrainian plane in Iranian airspace in January, when for several days it delayed acknowledgement of its responsibility for launching the missiles.

Overall, the way Iran has been dealing with the virus is considered a failure and slow. Even now, intelligence services in the West suspect that the real number of victims in the country is higher than what is stated in the official reports. However, Israel does not give credit to the reports that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has come down with the coronavirus or has gone into quarantine in face of the spread of the disease. On Thursday, Lebanon had its first three deaths – and still, flights from Iran, apparently the main origin of the spread, have not been stopped.

Iranian firefighters disinfect streets and allies in southern Tehran to halt the wild spread of coronavirus on March 11, 2020.AFP

The virus has caught Iran in the midst of a prolonged economic crisis exacerbated by the renewal of U.S. sanctions. The economic slowdown in the wake of the virus has led to another decline in oil prices, which recent market confrontations between Saudi Arabia and Russia have accelerated. When Iranian oil production dropped to half a million barrels a day, jaws dropped in Military Intelligence. This week, the country produced about 150,000 barrels a day, at only about $30 a barrel. For Tehran, this is a dramatic blow.

The crisis is deepening the regime’s dilemma with regard to its subversive activity throughout the Middle East. This was the flagship project of Qassem Soleimani, the Revolutioniary Guard general assassinated in an Americans strike at the beginning of January. Apparently, his successors and the regime in Tehran will have to reconsider the extent of their regional activity in light of mounting budgetary constraints.

This is the point, more or less, where good news might somehow grow out of the crisis.  It was hard to watch U.S. President Donald Trump’s news conference on Thursday morning without experiencing a slight tremor of anxiety. During his more than three years in the White House, the president has enjoyed a relative paucity of international crises. For his many supporters, the nighttime assassination of the Iranian general, or a one-time meeting with a North Korean dictator sufficed to give the appearance of strength and leadership.