The Coronavirus Crisis Highlights the Weaknesses in Iran’s Government—and Trump’s Iran Policy

People wear medical masks and gloves as a precaution against coronavirus in Tehran, Iran, March 2020.

The coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, presents governments across the world with a stress test they have so far failed to meet—but few have failed more spectacularly than the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The first few months of 2020 have been unkind to the Iranian people. Not only are they suffering economic hardship due to new U.S. sanctions, but their autocratic government’s corruption, mismanagement, and bad policy choices are wreaking havoc on their lives.

Then Iran’s first outbreak of coronavirus was reported in February in the city of Qom. The Iranian government’s incompetence and consistent problems with transparency and truth telling have now made the country a regional epicenter for the propagation of the novel coronavirus that first emerged in China and now threatens countries around the globe.

The Iran regime refused to halt travel from China after the virus started to spread in that country and then failed to quarantine Qom when COVID-19 reached the holy city. In a telling symbol of the regime’s inadequate response, several top Iranian health officials and leading politicians have tested positive for the virus. Making matters worse, the regime has yet to tell the full truth about the scope of its coronavirus challenge. As doctor and expert on Iranian public health policy Amir Afkhani put it, “[Tehran] adopted a policy toward the coronavirus outbreak that prioritized the regime’s survival and prestige over the public’s welfare.”

Iran’s central role as an epicenter for the global spread of COVID-19 adds yet another complication onto the already complex set of questions surrounding U.S. policy toward Tehran.

Even before COVID-19 became the world’s most pressing public policy concern, the United States needed to be more realistic about what it could and could not achieve regarding Iran—with the Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy being the prime example such an unrealistic approach.

A more pragmatic alternative of measured engagement with Iran—one that puts diplomacy first—is better suited to dealing with challenges such as COVID-19 that know no national borders. Such an approach would also help counter other threats Iran has posed to regional and global security. This alternative recognizes that the Trump administration’s maximum pressure failed to improve America’s position in the Middle East and check Iran’s aggressive regional policies. Despite built-in humanitarian exceptions, U.S. sanctions also makes it more difficult for foreign companies and organizations to provide Iran with medical equipment that could help Iranians better cope with the coronavirus outbreak.

At the same time, however, this diplomacy-first alternative also understands that the United States can’t simply return to the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran either. Instead, the United States should aim for an interim deal on the nuclear question that allows broader discussions about a wider set of security concerns to take place.

Any new nuclear deal must be built on the foundation of a more comprehensive regional stabilization strategy that works to build up the defenses and address the legitimate security concerns of America’s Middle East partners, including implementing Obama-era security cooperation agreements with the Gulf Arab states. Accordingly, the United States should support regional partners in their efforts to deescalate tensions with Iran while simultaneously holding Iran accountable in the United Nations and other international forums for its acts of aggression against its neighbors.

The regime’s response to the coronavirus at home could erode its domestic legitimacy and make it more reliant on brute force to stay in power. That’s all the more reason for the United States to abandon the Trump administration’s feckless “maximum pressure” approach and adopt a more realistic Iran policy moving forward.

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Peter Juul is a senior policy analyst on the National Security and International Policy team at the Center.

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