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A member of the Ukrainian State Border Guard Service wearing a protective mask is seen at the contact line between Ukrainian troops and pro-Moscow rebels in Mayorsk, Ukraine on 17 March, 2020 REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

COVID-19 and Conflict: Seven Trends to Watch

Deadly and disruptive as it already is, and terribly as it could yet worsen and spread, the 2020 coronavirus outbreak could also have political effects that last long after the contagion is contained. Crisis Group identifies seven points of particular concern.

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The COVID-19 pandemic unquestionably presents an era-defining challenge to public health and the global economy. Its political consequences, both short- and long-term, are less well understood.

The global outbreak has the potential to wreak havoc in fragile states, trigger widespread unrest and severely test international crisis management systems. Its implications are especially serious for those caught in the midst of conflict if, as seems likely, the disease disrupts humanitarian aid flows, limits peace operations and postpones or distracts conflict parties from nascent as well as ongoing efforts at diplomacy. Unscrupulous leaders may exploit the pandemic to advance their objectives in ways that exacerbate domestic or international crises – cracking down on dissent at home or escalating conflicts with rival states – on the assumption that they will get away with it while the world is otherwise occupied. COVID-19 has fuelled geopolitical friction, with the U.S. blaming China for the disease while Beijing tries to win friends by offering aid to affected countries, exacerbating existing great-power tensions that complicate cooperation on crisis management.

It is not yet clear when and where the virus will hit hardest, and how economic, social and political factors may converge to spark or aggravate crises. Nor is it guaranteed that the pandemic’s consequences will be entirely or uniformly negative for peace and security. Natural disasters have sometimes resulted in the diminution of conflicts, as rival parties have had to work together, or at least maintain calm, to focus on preserving and rebuilding their societies. There have been a few signs of governments trying to ease political tensions in the shadow of COVID-19 with, for example, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Kuwait offering Iran – centre of one of the worst initial outbreaks outside China – humanitarian assistance. If the pandemic is likely to worsen some crises internationally, it may also create windows to improve others.

Crisis Group is especially concerned with places where the global health challenge intersects with wars or political conditions that could give rise to new crises or exacerbate existing ones.

The coming months will be acutely risky, with the U.S. and European countries focusing on the domestic impact of COVID-19 just as the disease is likely to spread to poor and war-affected countries. With the exception of Iran, in its first phase COVID-19 mainly affected states – including China, South Korea and Italy – that had resources to manage the problem, albeit unevenly and at the cost of severe strains on their health systems and economies. To date, there have been fewer reported cases in countries with weaker health systems, lower state capability or significant internal conflict, where consequences of an outbreak could be overwhelming.

That is of little solace, however. The low numbers are almost certainly a function of insufficient testing or of a delay between the virus’s onset and its manifestation. Confirmed case numbers are ticking up in fragile parts of the Arab world and Africa. If countries struggle to put in place social distancing or other measures to stop the virus’s spread, or delay doing so, they could see spikes of cases like those now overwhelming parts of Europe, but with far fewer emergency care facilities available to save lives. The suffering that would cause is hard to overstate. If the disease spreads in densely packed urban centres in fragile states, it may be virtually impossible to control. The dramatic economic slowdown already under way will disrupt trade flows and create unemployment that will do damage at levels that are hard to forecast and grim to contemplate. A recession could take a particularly heavy toll on fragile states where there is greatest potential for unrest and conflict.

All governments face hard choices about how to manage the virus. Countries from the Schengen area to Sudan have already imposed border restrictions. Many are placing partial or blanket bans on public gatherings or insisting that citizens shelter at home. These are necessary but also costly measures, especially given projections that the pandemic could continue for well over a year until a vaccine becomes available. The economic impact of restricting movement for months on end is likely to be devastating. Lifting restrictions prematurely could risk new spikes in infections and require a return to isolation measures, further compounding the disease’s economic and political impact and requiring further injections of liquidity and fiscal stimulus by governments around the world.

These are universal problems, but as an organisation focusing on early warning and conflict prevention, Crisis Group is especially concerned with places where the global health challenge intersects with wars or political conditions – such as weak institutions, communal tensions, lack of trust in leaders and inter-state rivalries – that could give rise to new crises or exacerbate existing ones. We also hope to identify cases where the disease could, with effective diplomacy, stimulate reductions in tensions. This briefing, the first in a series of Crisis Group publications on COVID-19 and its effects on the conflict landscape, draws primarily from the input of our analysts across the globe, and identifies seven trends to watch during the pandemic.

I. The Vulnerability of Conflict-affected Populations

The populations of conflict-affected countries – whether those in war or suffering its after-effects – are likely to be especially vulnerable to outbreaks of disease.[fn]Except where otherwise noted, this briefing is based on observations from Crisis Group analysts between 1 and 21 March 2020. For previous studies of conflict, public health and pandemics, see Maire A. Connolly and David L. Heymann, “Deadly Comrade: War and Infectious Diseases”, The Lancet, vol. 360 (December 2002); Paul H. Wise and Michele Barry, “Civil War and the Global Threat of Pandemics”, Daedalus, vol. 146, no. 4 (Fall 2017); Nita Madhav, Ben Oppenheim, Mark Gallivan, Prime Mulembakani, Edward Rubin and Nathan Wolfe, “Pandemics: Risks, Impacts and Mitigation”, in D. Y. Jamieson et al. (eds.), Disease Control Priorities, vol. 9 (3rd edition) (Washington, 2017).Hide Footnote In many cases, war or prolonged unrest, especially when compounded by mismanagement, corruption or foreign sanctions, have left national health systems profoundly ill-prepared for COVID-19.

In Libya, for example, the UN-backed government in Tripoli has pledged roughly $350 million to respond to the disease, but to what end is unclear: the health system has collapsed due to an outflow of foreign medics during the war.[fn]Libya’s Tripoli government declares emergency, shuts down ports, airports”, Reuters, 14 March 2020.Hide Footnote In Venezuela, as Crisis Group warned would happen in 2016, the standoff between the chavista government and opposition has hollowed out health services. COVID-19 is liable to overwhelm the country’s remaining hospitals very quickly.[fn]Crisis Group Latin America Briefing N°35, Venezuela: Edge of a Precipice, 24 June 2016.Hide Footnote In Iran, the government’s lethargic response compounded by the impact of U.S. sanctions has brought calamity: the virus reportedly is infecting nearly 50 people and taking five to six lives every hour.[fn]“U.S. to Iran: Coronavirus won’t save you from sanctions”, Reuters, 20 March 2020.Hide Footnote In Gaza, where a healthcare system weakened by years of blockade was ill equipped to serve the high-density population long before COVID-19, the Health Ministry is scrambling to gather the experts and obtain the supplies necessary for when the disease sweeps in. It appears to be an uphill climb: medical suppliers serving the region told Crisis Group that they had run out of key items even before the ministry announced two COVID cases on 21 March.

On top of such institutional problems, it can be hard to persuade populations with little trust in government or political leaders to follow public health directives. Reviewing the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, Crisis Group noted that “the virus initially spread unchecked not only because of the weakness of epidemiological monitoring and inadequate health system capacity and response, but also because people were sceptical of what their governments were saying or asking them to do”.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°232, The Politics Behind the Ebola Crisis, 28 October 2015.Hide Footnote The doubts stemmed in part from misinformation and poor advice about the contagion from the governments involved but also from recurrent political tensions in a region scarred by war in the previous decade.

In cases of active conflict, national and international medics and humanitarian actors may struggle to get relief to people in need. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) and international NGOs struggled to contain an Ebola outbreak in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), despite support from UN peacekeepers, due to violent local militias that blocked access to some affected areas. At times, combatants targeted doctors and medical facilities themselves. Although the Congolese authorities and WHO apparently succeeded in ending the outbreak in recent months, the disease lasted far longer and claimed far many more lives (with a confirmed 2,264 fatalities) than would have been the case in a stable area.[fn]“DRC Ebola Updates: Crisis Update – March 2020, MSF, 9 March 2020.Hide Footnote Security obstacles are similarly liable to hamper the COVID-19 response in places where hostilities continue.

The areas of active conflict at highest immediate risk of COVID-19 outbreaks may be north-western Syria, around the besieged enclave of Idlib, and Yemen

The areas of active conflict at highest immediate risk of COVID-19 outbreaks may be north-western Syria, around the besieged enclave of Idlib, and Yemen. Both countries have already experienced health crises during their civil wars, with violence impeding the international response to an outbreak of polio in Syria in 2013-2014 and cholera in Yemen from 2016 onward. UN officials have now raised the alarm about COVID-19 infecting the population of Idlib, where a Russian-backed offensive by government forces has systematically targeted hospitals and other medical facilities and led to the displacement of over one million people in the last six months alone.[fn]See also Evan Hill and Yousur Al-Hlou, “‘Wash our hands? Some people can’t wash their kids for a week’”, The New York Times, 20 March 2020.Hide Footnote Many people fleeing clashes sleep in fields or under trees, and basic hygiene and social distancing practices are made impossible by the lack of running water or soap as well as cramped living spaces. Delivery of vital test kits has been delayed by weeks. Humanitarian workers fear that an outbreak of the disease in Idlib would both overwhelm the province’s medical facilities and make it impossible to care for victims of war.

In Yemen, war since 2015 has decimated what even before was a very weak heath system. Over 24 million people already require humanitarian assistance.[fn]“Humanitarian crisis in Yemen remains the worst in the world, warns UN”, UN News, 14 February 2019.Hide Footnote After de facto authorities in the capital city of Sanaa and the internationally recognised government in Aden banned international flights to prevent the virus from spreading, international relief teams reduced their numbers to essential staff. A COVID-19 outbreak could rapidly overwhelm aid efforts and make one of the world’s most serious humanitarian catastrophes even more dire.

In Idlib, Yemen and beyond, internally displaced persons (IDPs), asylum seekers and refugees are particularly exposed to outbreaks of COVID-19, given their frequently squalid living conditions and limited access to health care. Data released by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in 2019 suggest that over 70 million people fall into these categories of displacement globally, and the number has most likely risen since then, especially given events in Syria.[fn]“Worldwide displacement tops 70 million, UN refugee chief urges greater solidarity in response”, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, press release, 19 June 2019.Hide Footnote Whatever narrow avenues might have existed for displaced persons to move or be resettled to safer and more secure locations are, for all intents and purposes, now shut off due to COVID-19.

There is a long history of contagion spiking in IDP and refugee camps, a risk that now looms again, although in some areas medical services available in camps may be better than those for surrounding populations. UN officials are particularly concerned about the al-Hol camp in north-eastern Syria, home to over 70,000 people, including women and children who fled the Islamic State’s last territorial foothold as it collapsed, among them Syrians, Iraqis and approximately 10,000 nationals of other countries. As we wrote about the camp in the fall of 2019, it was already “a scene of humanitarian disaster, rampant with disease – its residents lacking adequate food, clean water, often cut off entirely from medical services”, leaving its population highly vulnerable to COVID-19.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°208, Women and Children First: Repatriating the Westerners Affiliated with ISIS, 18 November 2019, p. 4.Hide Footnote

Also of concern are the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, where over one million people live in overcrowded conditions, with sanitation facilities and health care services limited to a bare minimum.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Report N°303, A Sustainable Policy for Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh, 27 December 2019.Hide Footnote A government ban on internet and mobile phone services in the camps limits access to vital preventive information, while high levels of malnutrition likely imply that both the refugees and local residents are more susceptible to the disease. Should COVID-19 reach the camps, humanitarian agencies expect it to spread like wildfire, potentially triggering a backlash from Bangladeshis who live in the surrounding areas and are already unnerved by the refugees’ prolonged stay.

In these cases – as for displaced communities in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, Africa and Asia – there is a risk that IDPs and refugees facing large-scale outbreaks of COVID-19 in the camps where they reside may aim to flee again to safety, leading local populations or authorities to react forcefully to contain them, which creates the potential for escalating violence. States attempting to stop the spread of the disease are likely to view new refugee flows fearfully. Colombia and Brazil, for example, closed their borders with Venezuela after previously taking a relatively generous approach to those fleeing the crisis there, but the pressure to escape worsening poverty and health risks in Venezuela could force rising numbers of migrants to use illegal crossings.

The COVID-19 emergency could also exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Central America tied in part to the Trump administration’s immigration policies, as well as the region’s already high levels of violent crime. Having announced the closure of its southern border to all non-essential traffic from 21 March, the U.S. may seek to strengthen efforts to halt the arrival of migrants and refugees from Central America and return them to host countries. El Salvador and Guatemala nevertheless suspended in mid-March all incoming flights of Central American deportees from the U.S. The service to Guatemala has since resumed, but it remains to be seen whether Washington can continue to export deportees when both these countries have grounded all other international passenger flights. 

At a time of grave threat to Central America’s fragile economies, moves to continue U.S. and Mexican deportation flights could expose growing numbers of displaced people to a frosty reception once they land, as locals may fear that the arrivals are spreading disease. Many deportees are likely to face the choice of heading back to the U.S. border, with the support of trafficking networks, or becoming victims or accomplices of the region’s pervasive criminal groups and street gangs.

In many cases, COVID-19’s impact on refugees and IDPs will be felt disproportionately by women, who often form the majority of displaced populations in conflict-afflicted regions. These women’s access to services and ability to feed their families are already deeply constrained by stigma relating to their ties (real or alleged) to armed groups. Exposed to sexual exploitation or abuse, with their rehabilitation or integration back into communities a low priority for feeble or indifferent governments, displaced women and children stand poised to be affected fast and first by the economic crises that will accompany the spread of the disease.

II. Damage to International Crisis Management and Conflict Resolution Mechanisms

One reason why refugee and IDP populations are likely to be especially vulnerable to COVID-19 is that the disease could severely weaken the capacity of international institutions to serve conflict-affected areas. WHO and other international officials fear that restrictions associated with the disease will impede humanitarian supply chains. But humanitarian agencies are not the only parts of the multilateral system under pressure due to the pandemic, which is also likely to curb peacemaking.

Travel restrictions have begun to weigh on international mediation efforts. UN envoys working in the Middle East have been blocked from travelling to and within the region due to airport closures. Regional organisations have suspended diplomatic initiatives in areas ranging from the South Caucasus to West Africa, while the envoy of the International Contact Group on Venezuela – a group of European and Latin American states looking for a diplomatic solution to the crisis there – had to cancel an already long-delayed trip to Caracas in early March for COVID-related reasons.[fn]A delegation of diplomats planning to visit Nagorno-Karabakh on behalf of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe cancelled the trip, while West African leaders planning to visit Guinea to discuss a contentious referendum also called off their visit.
 Hide Footnote

A delegation of diplomats planning to visit Nagorno-Karabakh on behalf of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe cancelled the trip, while West African leaders planning to visit Guinea to discuss a contentious referendum also called off their visit.

Hide Footnote The disease could affect crucial intra-Afghan peace talks planned as a follow-up to the February preliminary agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban, at least reducing the number of those who can participate (although limiting the group to real decision-makers and essential support staff could be conducive to serious talks).[fn]In a possible sign of progress, U.S. Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted on 22 March that the U.S. and Qatar had facilitated technical talks on prisoner releases between the Afghan government and Taliban “via Skype video conferencing”.Hide Footnote

Covid-19 means that international leaders, focused as they are on dramatic domestic issues, have little or no time to devote to conflicts or peace processes

More broadly, the disease means that international leaders, focused as they are on dramatic domestic issues, have little or no time to devote to conflicts or peace processes. European officials say that efforts to secure a ceasefire in Libya (a priority for Berlin and Brussels in February) are no longer receiving high-level attention. Diplomats working to prevent a deadly showdown in northern Yemen desperately need the time and energy of senior Saudi and U.S. officials but report that meetings with both are being cancelled or curtailed. Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta called off a 16 March summit with counterparts from Ethiopia and Somalia that aimed to defuse dangerously escalating tensions between Nairobi and Mogadishu, with Kenyan officials citing their need to focus on efforts to halt the virus’s potential spread.[fn]“Kenya’s president cancels two foreign meetings over Covid-19”, The East African, 15 March 2020.Hide Footnote A summit between leaders of the EU and the “G5 Sahel countries” (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) will also be cancelled, dealing a blow to efforts to boost counter-terrorism operations in the region.

The disease could also affect multinational peacekeeping and security assistance efforts. In early March, the UN secretariat asked a group of nine peacekeeping troop contributors – including China and Italy – to suspend some or all unit rotations to blue helmet operations due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19.[fn]These initial restrictions reflected requests from host and transit countries (including Uganda, an important UN logistical hub) to the UN not to risk spreading the disease. UN Department of Operational Support correspondence with permanent representatives to the UN, 5 March 2020 (seen by Crisis Group, 9 March 2020).Hide Footnote UN operations have announced further limits to rotations since then, meaning that peacekeepers’ tours of duty will be extended for at least three months in tough mission settings such as the Central African Republic and South Sudan, potentially affecting their morale and effectiveness. A Security Council decision on setting up a new political mission to support Sudan’s transition to civilian rule appears likely to be postponed due to constraints on the Council’s meeting schedule to which its members agreed as part of virus containment measures.[fn]The Security Council postponed meetings from 16 March onward and has tested virtual meeting options, although diplomats will still meet occasionally to vote.Hide Footnote While these diplomatic and operational decisions will have no immediate impact on UN operations, a prolonged pandemic could make it difficult to find and deploy fresh forces and civilian personnel, wearing down missions.

If international organisations may struggle to handle the crisis, media outlets and NGOs may also find it hard to report on conflict and crises due to travel restrictions, even as many readers and viewers are likely at least temporarily to lose interest in non-COVID-19-related stories. Some authoritarian governments seem ready to use the crisis to limit media access. Egypt has, for example, censured Western reporters for their coverage of the disease inside the country – removing the credentials of a Guardian reporter – while China has sent home a number of leading U.S. correspondents. Crisis Group itself has had to place significant limits on our analysts’ ability to travel during the pandemic for their own safety. As this briefing illustrates, we are determined to keep a spotlight on conflicts – whether related to COVID-19 or not – and provide the best coverage possible, but our work will face inevitable constraints.

III. Risks to Social Order

COVID-19 could place great stress on societies and political systems, creating the potential for new outbreaks of violence. In the short term, the threat of disease is likely acting as a deterrent to popular unrest, as protesters avoid large gatherings. COVID-19’s emergence in China precipitated a decline in anti-Beijing protests in Hong Kong (although public discomfort with radical elements of the protest movement may also have been a factor).[fn]Helen Davidson, “Hong Kong: With coronavirus curbed, protests may return”, The Guardian, 15 March 2020.Hide Footnote There has been a decline, too, in the numbers of protesters taking to the streets in Algeria to challenge government corruption.[fn]“Algerians forego weekly protest amid coronavirus”, Reuters, 20 March 2020.Hide Footnote The Russian opposition largely acquiesced in the authorities’ move, ostensibly justified on health grounds, to block protests against President Vladimir Putin’s decision to rewrite the constitution to extend his tenure in office.[fn]“Coronavirus forces Putin critics to scale back protests before big vote”, Reuters, 20 March 2020.Hide Footnote At least one exception to this general caution occurred in Niger, where demonstrators took to the streets against rules barring protest, which the government extended by invoking COVID-19. Three civilians were killed by security forces on 15 March.

Yet the quiet in the streets may be a temporary and misleading phenomenon. The pandemic’s public health and economic consequences are liable to strain relations between governments and citizens, especially where health services buckle; preserving public order could prove challenging when security forces are overstretched and populations become increasingly frustrated with the government’s response to the disease.

Early signs of social disorder already can be seen. In Ukraine, protesters attacked buses carrying Ukrainian evacuees from Wuhan, China, in response to allegations that some were carrying the disease.[fn]“Coronavirus: Ukraine protesters attack buses carrying China evacuees”, BBC, 21 February 2020.Hide Footnote Prison breaks have been reported in Venezuela, Brazil and Italy, with inmates reacting violently to new restrictions associated with COVID-19, while in Colombia prison riots and a reported jailbreak over the perceived lack of protection from the disease resulted in the death of 23 inmates at La Modelo jail on 21 March. In Colombia as well, looters attacked food trucks headed for Venezuela, at least in part to protest the economic effects of the decision taken by both Bogotá and Caracas to close the Colombian-Venezuelan border for health reasons. Even reasonable precautions may inspire angry responses. In Peru, the authorities have arrested hundreds of citizens for breaking quarantine rules, in some cases leading to violence.

The disease’s catastrophic economic impact could well sow the seeds of future disorder.

More broadly, the disease’s catastrophic economic impact could well sow the seeds of future disorder. It could do so whether or not the countries in question have experienced major outbreaks of the disease, although the danger in those that have will be magnified. A global recession of as yet unknown scope lies ahead; pandemic-related transport restrictions will disrupt trade and food supplies; countless businesses will be forced to shut down; and unemployment levels are likely to soar.[fn]Some financial analysts are predicting a “severe global recession” resulting from the outbreak. The U.S. economy, to cite one example, is predicted to contract by 14 per cent in the second quarter of 2020. “Assessing the Fallout from the Coronavirus Pandemic”, JP Morgan, 20 March 2020.Hide Footnote

Governments that have close trading ties with China, especially some in Africa, are feeling the pain of the slowdown emanating from the original Wuhan outbreak.[fn]See, for example, Hannah Ryder and Angela Benefo, “China’s coronavirus slowdown: Which African economies will be hit hardest?”, The Diplomat, 19 March 2020.Hide Footnote Oil producers are already struggling with the collapse of energy prices. Countries like Nigeria, which has strong import/export links to China and relies on oil prices to prop up its public finances, are suffering. Abuja has reportedly considered cutting expenditures by 10 per cent in 2020, meaning that authorities may have to default on promises to raise the minimum wage.[fn]“Silk roadblock: coronavirus exposes Nigeria’s reliance on China”, Reuters, 6 March 2020.Hide Footnote Such austerity measures, combined with other economic effects of COVID-19 – such as the disappearance of tourists in areas that depend heavily on foreign visitors – could lead to economic shocks that last well beyond the immediate crisis, creating the potential for prolonged labour disturbances and social instability.

As Crisis Group noted at the start of 2020, the raucous protests of 2019 stemmed from a “pervasive sense of economic injustice” that could “set more cities ablaze this year”.[fn]Robert Malley, “10 Conflicts to Watch in 2020”, Crisis Group Commentary, 27 December 2019.Hide Footnote Anger over the effects of COVID-19 – and perceptions that governments are mismanaging them – could eventually trigger new demonstrations. The economic decline will have even more immediate effects on societies in low-income countries. Across large swathes of sub-Saharan Africa in particular, millions depend on their daily income to feed their families. An extended lockdown could rapidly create widespread desperation and disorder.

One further reason for worry is COVID-19’s clear potential to unleash xenophobic sentiment, especially in countries with large immigrant communities. Early in the crisis, Chinese labourers in Kenya faced harassment linked to suspicions that China Southern Airline flights were bringing the coronavirus into the country. Some Western politicians, notably U.S. President Donald Trump, have attempted to whip up resentment of Beijing with jibes about the “Chinese virus”. There is anecdotal evidence of an increase in prejudice toward people of Chinese ethnicity in the U.S. and other Western countries, and a serious risk that the diseases will fuel more racist and anti-foreigner violence.[fn]See for example Holly Yan, Natasha Chen and Dushyant Naresh, “What’s spreading faster than coronavirus in the U.S.? Racist assaults and ignorant attacks against Asians”, CNN, 21 February 2020.Hide Footnote

IV. Political Exploitation of the Crisis

Against this background of social pressures, there is ample room for political leaders to try to exploit COVID-19, either to solidify power at home or pursue their interests abroad. In the short term, many governments seem confused by the speed, reach and danger of the outbreak and, in some cases, the disease has infected political elites. An outbreak in Brazil’s isolated capital, Brasilia, has sickened a large number of officials and politicians. In Iran, there have been dozens of cases among senior officials and parliamentarians. In Burkina Faso, where the government is already struggling with the collapse of state authority in large parts of the country, a rash of cases has hit cabinet members. The first vice president of the parliament was the first recorded fatality in sub-Saharan Africa. In such instances, the disease is more likely to weaken authorities’ ability to make decisions about both health issues and other pressing crises.

Nonetheless, as the crisis goes on, some leaders could order restrictive measures that make public health sense at the peak of the crisis and then extend them in the hope of quashing dissent once the disease declines. Such measures could include indefinite bans on large public gatherings – which many governments have already instituted to stop community spread of COVID-19 – to prevent public protests. Here again there are precedents from West Africa’s Ebola crisis: local civil society groups and opposition parties claim that the authorities prohibited meetings for longer than necessary as a way of suppressing legitimate protests.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Politics Behind the Ebola Crisis, op. cit., p. 25.Hide Footnote A harbinger of what is to come may have appeared in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban asked parliament on 21 March to indefinitely extend a state of emergency that prescribes five-year prison sentences for those disseminating false information or obstructing the state’s crisis response.[fn]“Hungary govt seeks to extend special powers amid coronavirus crisis”, Reuters, 21 March 2020.Hide Footnote

There is ample room for political leaders to try to exploit COVID-19.

Elections scheduled for the first half of 2020, and perhaps later, are also liable to be postponed; here too, the immediate public health justification may be valid but the temptation to use the virus as a pretext for further delays and narrowing of political space could well exist. Indeed, there are likely to be good practical reasons for delaying voting in such cases. In addition to complicating domestic planning, the pandemic will obstruct the deployment of international electoral support and, where planned, observation missions. Still, opposition parties are likely to suspect foul play, especially in countries where political trust is low, there has been recent instability, or the government enjoys dubious legitimacy or has a history of manipulating electoral calendars.

Again, there are already examples. The interim president in Bolivia, Jeanine Añez, announced on 21 March that the presidential election planned for 3 May to find a full-time replacement for Evo Morales – whom the military ousted after controversial polls in 2019 – would be delayed to an unspecified future date. In Sri Lanka, an Election Commission decision to postpone parliamentary elections for public health reasons could grant President Gotabaya Rajapaksa – a hardline nationalist associated with human rights abuses directed at minorities and political critics – enhanced powers. Although Rajapaksa initially wanted the polls to go ahead (reflecting expectations of a landslide victory), should he refuse to recall parliament while elections remain on hold, the length and legality of his interim rule may well stir controversy.

Some leaders may also see COVID-19 as cover to embark on destabilising foreign adventures, whether to deflect domestic discontent or because they sense they will face little pushback amid the global health crisis. No such case has yet surfaced, and there is a risk that analysts will now attribute crises to COVID-19 that are better explained by other factors. Still, at a time when the pandemic is distracting major powers and multilateral organisations, some leaders may surmise that they can assert themselves in ways that they would otherwise deem too risky. A spate of attacks against U.S. targets by Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq may well be part of a pre-existing effort by Tehran to push the U.S. out of the Middle East. But with Iran’s leadership already under enormous domestic pressure, the toll taken by the coronavirus might also affect its calculus. As we wrote, “feeling besieged and with no obvious diplomatic exit ramp, Iran might conclude that only a confrontation with the United States might change a trajectory that’s heading in a very dangerous direction”.[fn]Robert Malley and Ali Vaez, “The coronavirus is a diplomatic opportunity for the United States and Iran”, Foreign Policy, 17 March 2020.Hide Footnote

Similarly, the crisis may create openings for jihadist groups to launch new offensives against weakened governments in Africa and the Middle East. To date, neither ISIS nor any of al-Qaeda’s various branches has displayed a clear strategic vision relating to the pandemic (although ISIS has circulated health guidance to its militants on how to avoid the disease based on the Koran).[fn]“ISIS tells terrorists to steer clear of coronavirus-stricken Europe”, Politico, 15 March 2020.Hide Footnote Nonetheless, as Crisis Group has previously argued, jihadist forces tend to “exploit disorder”, gaining territory and adherents where conflicts already exist or weak states face social turmoil.[fn]Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016.Hide Footnote ISIS, for example, used the post-2011 chaos in Syria to gain a level of power that would otherwise have been impossible. It is possible that social and political disorder may create similar openings for jihadist actors as the crisis goes on. Conversely, those groups – such as al-Shabaab in Somalia – that control significant swathes of territory could, like governments, face a surge of public discontent if they cannot keep COVID-19 in check.[fn]Al-Shabaab’s performance in handling famines in 2011 and 2017 – both exacerbated by conflict and the group’s restrictions on aid – offers scant reassurance as to how it might handle the present pandemic. See Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°125, Instruments of Pain (III): Conflict and Famine in Somalia, 9 May 2017.Hide Footnote

V. A Turning Point in Major Power Relations?

The potential effects of COVID-19 on specific trouble spots is magnified by the fact that the global system was already in the midst of realignment.[fn]Malley, “10 Conflicts to Watch in 2020,” op. cit.Hide Footnote The current moment thus stands apart from other, still relatively recent, international crises. When the financial crash prompted a global economic downturn in 2008, the U.S. still held enough clout to shape the international response through the G20, although Washington was careful to involve Beijing in the process. In 2014, the U.S. took charge of a belated multilateral response to the West Africa Ebola crisis helped by countries ranging from the UK and France to China and Cuba.[fn]See Ted Piccone, “Ebola could bring U.S. and Cuba together”, The Brookings Institution, 31 October 2014.Hide Footnote Today, the U.S. – whose international influence already had considerably weakened – has simultaneously mishandled its domestic response to COVID-19, failed to bring other nations together and stirred up international resentment. President Donald Trump has not only harped on the disease’s Chinese origins but also criticised the EU for bungling its containment.

China, by contrast, after having to cope with the consequences of the initial outbreak, its early and costly decision to hold back information, and its own uneven response, and having sought at times to blame the U.S. by waging an irresponsible misinformation campaign, now sees in the health crisis an opportunity to gain influence over other states through humanitarian gestures.[fn]See Conor Finnegan, “False claims about origins of the coronavirus cause spat between the U.S., China”, ABC, 13 March 2020. Some Chinese diplomats appear uncomfortable with Beijing’s insinuations that COVID-19 came from the U.S. See “Spat between Chinese diplomats shows internal split over Trump”, Bloomberg, 23 March 2020.Hide Footnote China has kicked its diplomatic machine into high gear to position itself as leading the international response to potential widespread outbreaks of COVID-19 on the African continent.[fn]For example, see Laura Zhou, “Will China’s support for nations fighting Covid-19 improve its global image?”, South China Morning Post, 22 March 2020.Hide Footnote On 16 March, Chinese billionaire Jack Ma announced that his foundation would give 20,000 testing kits, 100,000 masks and a thousand units of protective gear to each of the continent’s 54 countries. He said it would channel the donations through Ethiopia, with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, coordinating distribution.[fn]“As virus spreads, Africa gets supplies from China’s Jack Ma”, Associated Press, 22 March 2020.Hide Footnote On 19 March, Beijing further bolstered its diplomacy on the subject, announcing plans to build an African Centre for Disease Prevention and Control research facility in Nairobi.[fn]“Kenya to host Sh8 billion Africa disease control centre”, The Standard, 19 March 2020.Hide Footnote Beijing has also rolled out offers of assistance to EU members, blunting European criticisms of its initial handling of the contagion in Wuhan.[fn]“China steps up support for European countries hardest hit by coronavirus”, South China Morning Post, 18 March 2020. On the effects of Chinese aid on European perceptions, see Steven Erlanger, “In this crisis, U.S. sheds its role as global leader”, The New York Times, 22 March 2020.Hide Footnote

Despite the WHO’s pleas for unity, the pandemic is taking on a divisive geopolitical hue

Overall, despite the WHO’s pleas for unity, the pandemic is taking on a divisive geopolitical hue. Some leaders have framed it very clearly in these terms. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, for example, declared that – lacking any real support from the EU – “all my personal hopes are focused on China and its president”.[fn]Julija Simic, “Serbia turns to China due to ‘lack of EU solidarity’ on coronavirus”, Euractiv, 18 March 2020.Hide Footnote While Riyadh, which currently presides over the G20, has called for a “virtual summit” of leaders (similar to one already held by the G7), the crisis could increase tensions among Washington, Beijing and other powers. EU experts have warned that Russia is spreading disinformation about COVID-19 in Western countries.[fn]“Russia deploying coronavirus disinformation to sow panic in West, EU document says”, Reuters, 18 March 2020.Hide Footnote Jockeying among the big powers to take advantage of the general disarray could not only complicate technical cooperation against COVID-19, but also make it harder for the powers to agree on how to handle the political disputes it creates or exacerbates.

More broadly, the coronavirus and how it will be dealt with is likely to have a profound influence on the shape of the multilateral order that will emerge in its aftermath. It is too early to assess those implications. For now, one can discern two competing narratives gaining currency – one in which the lesson is that countries ought to come together to better defeat COVID-19, and one in which the lesson is that countries need to stand apart in order to better protect themselves from it.[fn]Yuval Noah Harari calls this the choice between “nationalist isolation and global solidarity”. “The world after coronavirus”, Financial Times, 20 March 2020.Hide Footnote The crisis also represents a stark test of the competing claims of liberal and illiberal states to better manage extreme social distress. As the pandemic unfolds, it will test not only the operational capacities of organisations like the UN and WHO, but also basic assumptions about the values and political bargains that underpin them.

VI. Opportunities to Be Seized

While the warning signs associated with COVID-19 are significant, there are also glimmers of hope. The scale of the outbreak creates room for humanitarian gestures between rivals. The UAE has, for example, airlifted over 30 tonnes of humanitarian aid to Iran to deal with the disease (Bahrain, by contrast, took the opportunity to accuse the Islamic Republic of “biological aggression”).[fn]Nafisa Eltahir and Lisa Barrington, “Bahrain accuses Iran of ‘biological aggression’, Gulf states try to curb coronavirus”, Reuters, 12 March 2020.Hide Footnote States with closer relations with Iran, including Kuwait and Qatar, have also proffered assistance. President Trump wrote to North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, expressing willingness to help Pyongyang confront the disease, prompting a message of gratitude in response.[fn]Choe Sang-Hun, “Trump writes to Kim Jong-un offering help in virus fight, North Korea says”, The New York Times, 21 March 2020.Hide Footnote Despite closing its border with Venezuela, the Colombian government has also had its first official contact with Caracas in over a year under the aegis of the teleconference mediated by the Pan American Health Organization to discuss a joint health care response in border areas. Anti-chavista politicians have also taken tentative steps to work with their rivals to address the crisis, as occurred in the border state of Táchira.

Two other examples: in the Caucasus, the U.S. sent its first aid to the secessionist Georgian region of Abkhazia in over a decade to help counter COVID-19 even though Abkhaz authorities are coordinating with Moscow rather than Tbilisi over the disease. In the Philippines, the normally hawkish President Rodrigo Duterte announced a one-month unilateral ceasefire with communist rebels, to allow government forces time to focus on the pandemic.[fn]“Duterte asks NPA for ceasefire during coronavirus lockdown”, Rappler.com, 17 March 2020.Hide Footnote

As the devastation spreads and economies shrink, pressures may grow on governments and opposition in polarised situations to find common ground.

These are only relatively small positive steps. But as the devastation spreads and economies shrink, pressures may grow on governments and opposition in polarised situations to find common ground if that is a condition for stability and receiving international assistance. Academic surveys show that warring parties frequently respond to natural disasters with agreements to reduce violence. A similar dynamic may apply in some conflicts in the face of COVID-19, although the scale of the crisis – and its emerging impact on international diplomacy – could make it hard for outside mediators and multilateral organisations to support peacemaking efforts as they could in more normal times.[fn]See Joakim Kreutz, “From Tremors to Talks: Do Natural Disasters Produce Ripe Moments for Resolving Separatist Conflicts?”, International Interactions, vol. 8, no. 4 (2012).Hide Footnote

Earlier this month, Crisis Group pressed the U.S. and Iran to seize this moment and reach a mutually beneficial understanding: Tehran would release all its dual national or foreign detainees (who face real risks from the disease in Iranian prisons) while Washington would loosen its sanctions (which are exacerbating the harrowing humanitarian situation Iran faces as a result of its own mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis).[fn]Malley and Vaez, “The coronavirus is a diplomatic opportunity for the United States and Iran”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Since then, Tehran has made concessions on prisoners – swapping a French detainee for an Iranian held in France and allowing a British-Iranian prisoner to leave jail temporarily. While the U.S. has said it would send humanitarian assistance to Iran, the Islamic Republic’s leadership promptly rejected the offer as disingenuous, pointing to the fact that U.S. sanctions remain fully in place. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has cited conspiracy theories blaming the U.S. for the illness.[fn]Jon Gambrell, “Iran leader refuses U.S. help to fight COVID-19, citing conspiracy theory”, Associated Press, 22 March 2020.Hide Footnote

VII. Potential Crisis Mitigation Measures

Looking ahead, governments will have to decide whether to support more cooperative approaches to handling the crisis, not only in global public health terms but also as a political and security challenge. All leaders face pressure to focus on and spend money and political capital on domestic priorities, and in particular to ignore conflict risks in weak states that may seem hard to resolve or simply not important enough to worry about. But there will be a day after, and if the coming period is not dealt with wisely, it could be marked by major disruptions in already conflict-ridden areas, the eruption of new violence and a far more fragile multilateral system. In addition to following the negative and positive trends noted above, Crisis Group will also be watching to see if states and multilateral institutions take preventive and mitigating measures to limit the pandemic’s impact on peace and security.

In that spirit, and to mitigate the possibility that COVID-19 brings about a new generation of security crises, governments aiming to limit the pandemic’s impact could consider the following steps:

  • Follow needs assessments from the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other relevant agencies, and inject essential COVID-19-related funding into humanitarian support, especially for refugees and IDPs, factoring in the disproportionate risks for displaced women;
  • Work with the UN, International Monetary Fund and World Bank – which have already started to mobilise funds to address health system failures and economic jolts resulting from COVID-19 – to assess the social and political shocks potentially arising from the pandemic to governments in weak states, and offer financial aid and debt relief;
  • Offer sanctions relief to states affected by COVID-19 and that are under sanctions, through multilateral frameworks such as the EU or UN, or through the suspension of unilateral sanctions, as appropriate if only temporarily, on humanitarian grounds, and remove any obstacles to the delivery of humanitarian goods;
  • Try to keep peace processes and conflict prevention efforts alive by working with UN envoys and other mediators to, for example, maintain secure electronic communications with conflict parties;
  • Where authorities delay elections or other polls for legitimate COVID-19 related reasons, offer outside support – such as declarations of extra-electoral assistance once the disease subsides, or quiet diplomacy between the parties – to reassure citizens that they will eventually get to vote;
  • Where possible, establish or strengthen diplomatic back channels among states and non-state actors most affected by the crisis to communicate over potential escalatory risks in tense regions;
  • Invest in efforts led by the WHO, independent media, non-governmental organisations and civil society to share impartial news about COVID-19 in weak states to counter rumour and political manipulation of the crisis as well as to keep a spotlight on conflicts that require international help.

The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to be long and draining. It will make diplomacy, and especially crisis diplomacy, harder. But it is crucial to keep channels of communication – and a spirit of cooperation – intact in a period when the international system seems as ready as ever to fragment.

New York/Brussels, 24 March 2020

An Iranian woman holds an Iran flag while taking part in a rally to mark the Islamic Revolution anniversary in Azadi square, Tehran on 11 February 2020. MORTEZA NIKOUBAZL/NURPHOTO VIA AFP

Flattening the Curve of U.S.-Iran Tensions

COVID-19 is ravaging Iran, due to government mismanagement exacerbated by the effects of U.S. sanctions. Instead of pointing fingers at each other, and again risking heightened military confrontation, Tehran and Washington should pursue humanitarian diplomacy aimed at containing the virus and releasing detainees.

What’s new? The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Iran hard. The government’s response has been stumbling and painfully slow; it has also been undermined by U.S. sanctions, notwithstanding exemptions for humanitarian goods. Tehran and Washington have indulged in a futile blame game.

Why does it matter? The public health emergency is dealing heavy blows to Iran’s already battered economy, against the backdrop of elevated regional tensions but also growing calls from U.S. allies and international organisations for U.S. sanctions relief.

What should be done? The parties should pursue a humanitarian exchange that addresses their immediate respective demands: targeted sanctions relief that bolsters Iran’s ability to combat the coronavirus, in return for Tehran releasing U.S. and other foreign detainees on humanitarian grounds. A second phase of de-escalation could expand discussions to forestall further regional friction.

I. Overview

Since announcing its first COVID-19 cases in February 2020, Iran has been the Middle Eastern country most badly hit by the virus, reporting infection and fatality rates among the highest in the world. The government in Tehran, which is under great economic duress, seriously mishandled its initial response to the public health emergency. At the same time, U.S. sanctions have hindered international efforts to deliver assistance, despite exemptions for humanitarian trade. The combination of a pandemic, enormous financial pressures and U.S. sanctions could converge in a perfect storm. But they could also usher in a different dynamic, unlikely as it may be. Out of humanitarian considerations as well as strategic interests, Washington and Tehran could choose to conduct a narrow diplomatic exchange: Iran would release all dual-national and foreign detainees, who face real risks from the disease, while the U.S. would revise its sanctions policies to ensure minimal disruption to relief efforts. Both governments should pursue this second course, following up quickly with steps to ease regional tensions, especially in Iraq.

The combination of a pandemic, enormous financial pressures and U.S. sanctions could converge in a perfect storm.

II. A Calamitous Outbreak and Ruinous Response

On 19 February, Iran confirmed its first COVID-19 fatalities in Qom. The holy city is where the contagion is believed to have started, as Chinese workers or students who recently had been in China visited the city’s seminaries.[fn]Coronavirus: Iran reports two suspected fatal cases at Qom hospital”, BBC, 19 February 2020. Reports of suspected cases, however, emerged earlier in the month. See “Iran reports first suspected coronavirus case”, Tehran Times, 3 February 2020; “Iran to take special measures in fight against coronavirus: Interior Min.”, Mehr News, 1 February 2020; and Rahmatollah Hafezi, “آقای رئیس‌جمهور تجدیدنظر کنید” [“Mr. President! Revise Your Stance”], Shargh, 24 March 2020.Hide Footnote Since then, Tehran has reported 50,468 total cases of infection – by some distance the highest number in the Middle East – and 3,160 fatalities, as of 2 April the sixth highest toll in the world.[fn]Coronavirus Resource Center”, Johns Hopkins University. Also, hundreds have died or become gravely ill from drinking industrial alcohol based on the misguided notion that it prevents infection. “In Iran, false belief a poison fights virus kills hundreds”, Associated Press, 27 March 2020.Hide Footnote Even these figures may not capture the full picture: as a World Health Organization (WHO) official cautioned on 16 March, the total number of cases could exceed the official tallies by a factor of five, due primarily to limited testing capacity.[fn]Emma Farge, “WHO to start coronavirus testing in rebel Syria; Iran raises efforts, official says”, Reuters, 16 March 2020.Hide Footnote President Hassan Rouhani warned that “we have passed the first wave of the disease, but another wave might be awaiting us”.[fn]Rouhani: UNSC likely to discuss plan to lift sanctions on Iran”, Tasnim, 25 March 2020.Hide Footnote At the end of March, one Iranian was dying from COVID-19 every ten minutes, with 130 new cases detected every hour.[fn]Health Ministry confirms 3,111 new COVID-19 infections”, Mehr News, 31 March 2020.Hide Footnote

The government gravely mismanaged its early response to COVID-19. Officials were cavalier about the risks of the virus’s spread, peddling conspiracy theories about its origins and mobilising against it slowly.[fn]See, for example, Maysam Behravesh, “The untold story of how Iran botched the coronavirus pandemic”, Foreign Policy, 24 March 2020; Jon Gambrell, “‘Virus at Iran’s gates’: How Tehran failed to stop outbreak”, Associated Press, 17 March 2020.Hide Footnote They dismissed suspicious cases in late January and early February as influenza and, despite the growing epidemic in China, did not sufficiently curb travel to and from that country. The government failed to do anything to boost the health care sector’s capacity.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iranian medical practitioners, Tehran, March 2020.Hide Footnote Two days after Iran’s 21 February parliamentary elections – which proceeded, albeit amid historically low turnout, despite the virus – Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei lamented that foreign media had propagated “the pretext of an illness and virus” in order “to discourage people from voting”.[fn]Imam Khamenei’s thanks to the Iranian nation”, Khamenei.ir, 23 February 2020.
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Since then, Ayatollah Khamenei has speculated that “evidence … suggests the likelihood of this being a ‘biological attack’”, and, referring to the U.S., claimed that “some people even say that some forms of the virus are particular to Iranian genes and thus produced on the basis of genetic science”.[fn]See “The command to the armed forces to establish a medical base to fight coronavirus”, Khamenei.ir, 13 March 2020; “U.S. officials are charlatans and terrorists”, Khamenei.ir, 22 March 2020.
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Visits of pilgrims and government officials to Qom, the country’s theological power centre, spread the contagion throughout the country and among the elite – from a vice president to ministers and from Supreme Leader advisers to parliamentarians.[fn]Iranian Officials Infected by COVID-19”, Iran Primer, U.S. Institute of Peace, 26 March 2020.Hide Footnote Iraj Harirchi, the deputy health minister who initially downplayed the extent of the coronavirus outbreak during a press conference on 24 February, where he appeared visibly ill, became a poster child for the government’s stumbling when he tested positive for COVID-19 the following day.[fn]Martin Chulov, “Iran’s deputy health minister: I have coronavirus”, The Guardian, 24 February 2020.
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The funeral of General Hossein Assadollahi who died – possibly of COVID-19 – was attended by thousands without taking precautionary measures.

Restrictions aimed at limiting the virus’s spread came in phases: on 23 February, the government ordered universities to close in some provinces and cancelled all cultural events; on 28 February, it called off Friday prayer gatherings, followed by the closure of all academic institutions; on 5 March, it shuttered all sports venues, followed by religious shrines on 13 March; on 19 March, it closed down non-essential businesses and shopping malls; and six days later it restricted travel between cities.[fn]President at the session of National Task Force for Fighting Coronavirus”, President.ir, 24 March 2020.
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By 17 March, Iran had temporarily released 85,000 prisoners to prevent an outbreak in detention centres.[fn]Hard-hit Iran frees more prisoners amid coronavirus outbreak”, Al Jazeera, 17 March 2020.Hide Footnote Enforcement of social distancing, however, remained uneven. A notable example was the funeral of a prominent commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), General Hossein Assadollahi, who died – possibly of COVID-19 – on 21 March, which was attended by thousands without taking precautionary measures.[fn]Iranians outraged over IRGC-organized street funeral amid coronavirus epidemic”, Radio Farda, 24 March 2020.
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In view of these various restrictions, an Iranian official complained that the international media was singling out Iran unfairly for reproach:

The track record of many advanced countries in handling the COVID-19 outbreak that were not hampered by sanctions and undue media hype is much worse than Iran’s. Any other country facing crippling sanctions amid this national health crisis would have come to its knees.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Tehran, 25 March 2020.Hide Footnote

Yet criticism did not emanate only from abroad. Members of both the Iranian public and elite blasted the government for its haphazard response. In some cities, locals set up roadblocks to prevent travellers from entering. A hardline strategist said: “Until now, we thought our country’s problem is lack of governance. But Rouhani’s handling of the Corona crisis has proven the problem is having this ‘government’”.[fn]Tweet by Mahdi Mohammadi, @mmohammadii61, prominent conservative strategist, 8.22pm, 26 March 2020.
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A member of parliament, who tested positive himself, mocked Rouhani by tweeting, “Conspiracy theory is seemingly the most important factor in senior officials’ decision-making”, attributing the government’s refusal to shut down public offices to its misguided focus on defeating not COVID-19 but an illusory plot by “the enemy against the country’s economy”.[fn]Tweet by Mahmoud Sadeghi, @mah_sadeghi, MP for Tehran, 4.23pm, 23 March 2020.
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As the crisis grew in scale and scope, so did tussles between political and military officials over who should run efforts to stem the outbreak and ensure implementation of mitigation policies.[fn]Farnaz Fassihi, “Power struggle hampers Iran’s coronavirus response”, The New York Times, 17 March 2020.
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Ayatollah Khamenei authorised General Mohammad Bagheri, chief of the joint armed forces, to coordinate biological defence efforts, prompting the latter to announce that the military would clear the streets in Tehran and several provinces.[fn]Iran security forces to empty city streets to fight coronavirus”, Reuters, 13 March 2020.Hide Footnote The Rouhani administration, apprehensive about the ramifications of shuttering an economy already reeling from sanctions, reined in the military with a Supreme National Security Council decision in favour of incremental quarantining.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iranian officials, Tehran, March 2020.Hide Footnote The government’s desire to close Shiite shrines in Qom and Mashhad drew resistance from parts of the clerical establishment and eventually led to clashes between security forces and religious zealots.[fn]Sune Engel Rasmussen and Aresu Eqbali, “Iranians defy authorities in bid to access Holy sites closed amid coronavirus”, Wall Street Journal, 17 March 2020.Hide Footnote Similar infighting led the government to halt efforts by Médecins Sans Frontières, the global medical charity, to build a field hospital in Isfahan.[fn]While the group had authorisation from the health and interior ministries, the security establishment, prodded by hardliners, grew suspicious of some of its doctors. Since then, the government has asked all international aid agencies active in Iran to submit a full report on their activities and funding sources. Crisis Group interviews, Iranian officials and aid workers, Tehran, March 2020. Somayeh Malekian, “Iran rejects coronavirus aid amid conspiracy theories and sanctions”, ABC News, 24 March 2020; “شریعتمداری: پزشکان ظاهراً بدون مرز از کدام مرز اجازه ورود گرفته‌اند” [“Shariatmadari: From which border did the supposed Doctors without Borders get permission to enter?”], Fars News, 24 March 2020.Hide Footnote

Two interconnected calculations seemingly led the government to opt for a less cautious, piecemeal approach: reluctance to restrict travel and trade with China, Iran’s last remaining oil customer and most important trading partner, and concern that quarantines would push the economy over the cliff. “In a normal situation and a good economy, we could have imposed a lockdown”, maintained Tehran’s mayor on 15 March. “But what comes next, like providing necessary goods or compensating for losses across Iran, is not possible, so a complete lockdown cannot be done”.[fn]Pirouz Hanachi, quoted in “Iran’s Rouhani defends virus response despite no lockdown”, Agence France Presse, 18 March 2020.
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Indeed, the pandemic’s economic impact is already apparent: Iran’s financial press has reported a collapse in tourism and severe drops in revenue from goods and services ranging from fast food restaurants to barber shops.[fn]These figures covered a 25-day period through mid-March and are based on a survey of 22 domestic businesses that had seen demand drop between 35 and 100 per cent. “Corona’s impact on 22 businesses”, Donya-e Eghtesad, 15 March 2020.Hide Footnote COVID-19’s impact could accelerate a decline in purchasing power that has already fallen off by one fifth since U.S sanctions came into effect in 2018, increase joblessness and deepen an already historic budget deficit.[fn]Iran’s budget assumed selling one million barrels per day of oil at an average price of $50 per barrel. Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, “The Coronavirus is Iran’s Perfect Storm”, Foreign Affairs, 18 March 2020.Hide Footnote

The Rouhani administration has introduced a series of measures to soften the blow. These include cash handouts to three million hourly workers and loans for a further four million low-income households, low-interest business loans, delayed business taxes and loan repayments until May, and a request to the Supreme Leader to allocate $1 billion from the National Development Fund to the health sector. According to Rouhani, these combined outlays of $6.25 billion equal 20 per cent of the government’s revenues.[fn]Davide Barbuscia and Parisa Hafezi, “Iran has limited scope for coronavirus economic stimulus”, Reuters, 25 March 2020; “President at Govt Economic Board for looking into coronavirus outbreak impacts”, President.ir, 26 March 2020; “President at the session of National Task Force for Fighting Coronavirus”, President.ir, 28 March 2020. The dollar equivalent is based on market rates, while Rouhani has cited a figure of “about $10 billion”.
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Yet the outbreak’s costs are likely to mount substantially. An Iranian official on 4 March estimated a decline of 18 per cent in foreign trade.[fn]Iran’s trade volume down 18 per cent over coronavirus outbreak”, Mehr News, 5 March 2020.Hide Footnote Since then, however, prospects have worsened: Iraq, Iran’s biggest regional export destination, announced a provisional closure of its land borders, while total Chinese trade with Iran in January and February dropped nearly 27 per cent compared with November-December, with exports to Iran down nearly 22 per cent and imports from Iran down over 34 per cent during the same time period due to the COVID-19 outbreak in China.[fn]Khalid Al Ansary, “Iraq to suspend border trade with Iran, Kuwait from March 8-15”, Bloomberg, 6 March 2020; General Administration of Customs, People’s Republic of China, 23 March 2020.Hide Footnote

The coronavirus may succeed in decimating those remaining revenue sources that U.S. sanctions have not managed to kill off.

Furthermore, while Iranian crude exports have fallen precipitously since the U.S. revoked all oil waivers in 2019, what barrels it manages to sell will yield shrinking dividends as crude-oil prices nosedive.[fn]Iran’s oil exports in January and February 2020 were estimated at around 250,000 barrels per day, down from around 2.5 million barrels per day prior to the reimposition of U.S. sanctions. See Dalga Khatinoglu, “Iran crude oil exports drop to less than 250,000 bpd in February”, Radio Farda, 2 March 2020.
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In other words, by curtailing regional trade and reducing Iran’s remaining oil sales, the coronavirus may succeed in decimating those remaining revenue sources that U.S. sanctions have not managed to kill off. The economy shrank an estimated 9.5 per cent in 2019, mostly due to the impact of U.S. sanctions.[fn]“World Economic Outlook”, International Monetary Fund, October 2019.Hide Footnote While the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank had projected that growth would recover to zero or even turn marginally positive, the COVID-19 crisis is more likely to cause another major economic contraction.[fn]Bijan Khajehpour, “Will Iran’s economy collapse under the coronavirus crisis?”, Al-Monitor, 19 March 2020. The IMF projected 0.0 per cent GDP growth in 2020. “World Economic Outlook”, op. cit. The World Bank estimated 0.1 per cent growth. “Iran’s Economic Update – October 2019”, World Bank, 9 October 2019.Hide Footnote

III. A Futile Blame Game

Amid Iran’s acute humanitarian distress, Tehran and Washington have engaged in a rancorous bout of finger-pointing. Iranian officials contend that U.S. sanctions have hampered their efforts to stem the outbreak, namely by limiting access to drugs, medical equipment and raw materials for domestic production of these goods, and by causing systemic harm, which has put the country in a uniquely disadvantaged position compared to others grappling with COVID-19.[fn][1] See, for example, Javad Zarif’s 12 March 2020 letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres. Tweet by Javad Zarif, @JZarif, Iranian foreign minister, 2:37pm, 13 March 2020. President Rouhani, in turn, published an open letter to “the people of America”, asking whether amid this public health crisis “the American people accept that these malicious pressures are brought to bear on the Iranian people in their name, as a result of their vote, and by the means of their taxes”. See “President in a message addressing the American people”, President.ir, 20 March 2020.Hide Footnote Washington has countered these charges by highlighting “broad exceptions and authorisations to its sanctions for the commercial export of food, medicine, medical devices and agricultural products to Iran”, and instead pinned the blame on internal mismanagement, corruption and considerable spending by Tehran to bankroll its foreign partners and proxies.[fn]Secretary of State Michael Pompeo charged: “the Iranian leadership is trying to avoid responsibility for their grossly incompetent and deadly governance. … the Wuhan virus is a killer and the Iranian regime is an accomplice”. “Secretary Michael R. Pompeo’s Remarks to the Press”, U.S. State Department, 17 March 2020. Arshad Mohammed, Daphne Psaledakis and Parisa Hafezi, “U.S. to Iran: Coronavirus won’t save you from sanctions”, Reuters, 20 March 2020.Hide Footnote

One cannot deny the Iranian government’s responsibility for worsening this crisis, mishandling the economy and wasting resources, but many cast doubt on the effectiveness of humanitarian exemptions to U.S. sanctions even before the COVID-19 outbreak.[fn]Amirhossein Takian, Azam Raoofi and Sara Kazempour-Ardebili, “COVID-19 Battle during the Toughest Sanctions against Iran”, The Lancet, vol. 395 (March 2020), pp. 1035-1036.
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In 2019, Human Rights Watch said “sanctions have largely deterred international banks and firms from participating in commercial or financial transactions, including for exempted humanitarian transactions, due to the fear of triggering U.S. secondary sanctions”.[fn]“‘Maximum Pressure’: U.S. Economic Sanctions Harm Iranians’ Right to Health”, Human Rights Watch, 25 October 2019.Hide Footnote This finding echoes those of international aid agencies operating in Iran. In January, the Norwegian Refugee Council reported that “for large parts of 2018-19 we could not find a single international bank able to transmit Western donor money to aid Afghan refugee communities across Iran and natural disaster victims in most affected provinces”.[fn]U.S.-Iran tension threatens lifeline to millions across the Middle East”, Norwegian Refugee Council, 8 January 2020.Hide Footnote More recently, Relief International’s Iran director confirmed that “one of the problems for international aid has been to clarify the legal issues related to sanctions … this slowed down the health response in the first weeks of the [COVID-19] outbreak”.[fn]Update: Iran’s fight against coronavirus pandemic”, Relief International, 11 March 2020.Hide Footnote

The challenges of navigating sanctions are also evident in a Swiss government initiative to develop, in cooperation with U.S. authorities, a humanitarian trade mechanism.[fn]In announcing the SHTA’s launch, the Swiss government noted that, following the reimposition of U.S. sanctions: “it has become increasingly difficult for Swiss exporters to supply humanitarian goods to Iran, although such shipments are in principle not subject to U.S. sanctions … hardly any financial institutions were willing to make payments in connection with Iran. The few remaining payment channels were expensive, complex and not very reliable”. See “Payment mechanism for humanitarian supplies to Iran in effect”, Swiss Federal Council, 27 February 2020.
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After lengthy deliberations between Washington and Bern, a pharmaceutical firm in January carried out a pilot transaction for the Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement (SHTA), dispatching €2.3 million in medicine to Iran through the Banque de Commerce et de Placements.[fn]Payment mechanism for humanitarian supplies to Iran to take effect”, Swiss Federal Council, 30 January 2020. The U.S. noted that the arrangement “is subject to strict due diligence measures to avoid misuse by the Iranian regime”. “United States Announces Successful Initial Transactions Through Humanitarian Channel for Iran”, U.S. Treasury Department, 30 January 2020.Hide Footnote Washington announced that the SHTA was “fully operational” on 27 February, and U.S. officials have since referred to the channel as a means of dispatching assistance amid the coronavirus outbreak.[fn]On 19 March, for example, U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook affirmed that “we encourage people to use this channel that we have set up through the Swiss to help the Iranian people”. Quoted in “Briefing on Updates American Citizens Wrongfully Held Abroad [sic]”, U.S. State Department, 19 March 2020.Hide Footnote But the SHTA is no silver bullet: as of 19 March, there has been only one completed transaction. Swiss authorities say the delays are due primarily to the lack of financing available to Iran, as Iranian assets abroad remain frozen in escrow accounts because of U.S. sanctions on Iran’s central bank and their chilling effect even though humanitarian trade is nominally exempt from sanctions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Tehran, March 2020. “Briefing on Updates American Citizens Wrongfully Held Abroad”, op. cit. A Swiss official on 7 March revealed that “there are 50 companies that are interested [in the SHTA] at the moment, and we think there will be more”. Michael Shields, “Dozens of Swiss companies keen on export channel to Iran”, Reuters, 7 March 2020.Hide Footnote

The UN Secretary-General and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights are among those who joined a growing chorus calling for alleviating sanctions.

Other international actors are thus looking for different ways of getting aid to Iran. UK officials have reportedly urged Washington to loosen some of its sanctions, assessing that the SHTA “involves so many [due diligence] conditions as to be ineffective”.[fn]Patrick Wintour, “UK presses U.S. to ease Iran sanctions to help coronavirus”, The Guardian, 18 March 2020.Hide Footnote The UN Secretary-General and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights are among those who joined a growing chorus calling for alleviating sanctions – not just on Iran, but more broadly.[fn]UN Secretary-General Guterres on 23 March wrote Group of Twenty (G-20) leaders to say he was “encouraging the waiving of sanctions imposed on countries to ensure access to food, essential health supplies and COVID-19 medical support. This is the time for solidarity not exclusion”. “Note to Correspondents: Letter from the Secretary-General to G-20 Members”, UN, 23 March 2020. The following day, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said “sectoral sanctions should be eased or suspended … humanitarian exemptions to sanctions measures should be given broad and practical effect, with prompt, flexible authorisation for essential medical equipment and supplies”. The statement additionally took note of the fact that “in Iran … human rights groups have repeatedly emphasised the impact of sectoral sanctions on access to essential medicines and medical equipment”, and warned of the risk that Iran’s outbreak “is also spreading to neighbouring countries which will strain health services in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan”. “Bachelet calls for easing of sanctions to enable medical systems to fight COVID-19 and limit global contagion”, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, 24 March 2020. Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, on 22 March directly called on the White House “to lift the sanctions against Iran till the COVID-19 pandemic is over”. Tweet by Imran Khan, @ImranKhanPTI, Pakistani prime minister, 8:06am, 22 March 2020. Iraq’s prime minister-designate, Adnan al-Zurfi, similarly contended that “the international community must help them [ie, the Iranians] by lifting or easing the sanctions and providing medical treatments, as this has health and security repercussions on Iraq”. Quoted in Tuqa Khalid, “Coronavirus: Iraqi PM-designate urges lifting of sanctions on Iran to protect Iraq”, Al Arabiya, 30 March 2020.Hide Footnote

Some aid has trickled in. The Instrument for Supporting Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), a special-purpose financial vehicle that France, Germany and the UK unveiled in January 2019 to preserve humanitarian trade with Iran in the face of U.S. sanctions, finally conducted its first transaction related to export of medical goods from Europe to Iran on 31 March.[fn]Laurence Norman, “EU ramps up trade system with Iran despite U.S. threats”, Wall Street Journal, 31 March 2020. The mechanism was ready to conduct this transaction as early as December 2019, but Iran was reluctant to let it through, lest it strengthen, despite its limited value, Europe’s hand in the dispute on compliance with commitments under the accord. Crisis Group interviews, Iranian and European officials, Munich, February 2020.Hide Footnote Aid has also been arriving from international agencies, non-governmental organisations and foreign governments, but it is nowhere near what Iran has indicated it needs to effectively fight the virus.[fn]Among the governments that have already sent, or announced plans to dispatch, assistance to Iran are France, the UK and Germany, China, Japan, Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The EU on 23 March revealed that “there is some €20 million in the pipeline … that we expect to be delivered over the next weeks”. Josep Borrell, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, quoted in “EU to provide 20 mln euros in humanitarian aid to Iran”, Reuters, 23 March 2020. Foreign Minister Zarif on 12 March published a list of 30 items urgently needed by Iran’s health ministry, including ventilators, protective masks and gloves, as well as other medical equipment and drugs. Tweet by Javad Zarif, @JZarif, Iranian foreign minister, 7:54am, 12 March 2020.Hide Footnote On 28 February, the Trump administration announced that it had offered to assist Iran with its COVID-19 response via the Swiss government, which represents U.S. interests in Iran, without making the details public. Tehran rejected the offer out of hand.[fn]“United States Offers Assistance to the Iranian People”, U.S. State Department, 28 February 2020. President Rouhani on 4 March maintained that the U.S. had donned “a mask of compassion in pretending to help the Iranian people; you had better lift the drug sanctions at least if you’re really sincere”. “President at cabinet session”, President.ir, 4 March 2020. There is precedent for U.S.-Iran humanitarian cooperation in times of strained relations. In response to the December 2003 Bam earthquake, the George W. Bush administration provided more than $10 million in assistance and facilitated humanitarian aid operations through Treasury Department licences. “U.S. assistance to Iran following Bam earthquake”, U.S. State Department, 31 March 2006. Too, the Obama administration in August 2012 responded to a devastating earthquake in north-western Iran by granting a 45-day license allowing non-governmental organisations to send “up to $300,000 … to Iran to be used for humanitarian relief and reconstruction activities”. “Treasury Issues General License to Aid Iranian Earthquake Victims”, U.S. Treasury Department, 21 August 2012.Hide Footnote As an Iranian official put it, “We don’t need handouts from the U.S. We need them to unshackle our hands by lifting the sanctions”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Tehran, 26 March 2020.Hide Footnote

Iranian military personnel disinfect public areas around mosques and other holy sites to beat the coronavirus outbreak in Qom, Iran. Tasnim News Agency/Mohammad Ali Marizad

IV. Policy Contagion

The COVID-19 crisis comes at a particularly difficult political moment for the Iranian government. In November 2019, its decision to abruptly raise fuel prices triggered widespread protests, the latest and most significant bout of unrest due to economic discontent and political stagnation. Security forces brutally suppressed the uprising, killing hundreds and imprisoning thousands.[fn]Crisis Group Statement, “Learning the Right Lessons from Protests in Iran”, 4 December 2019; “At least 23 children killed by security forces in November protests – new evidence”, Amnesty International, 4 March 2020.Hide Footnote In January, Iran downed a Ukrainian civilian airliner, purportedly having confused it for an incoming U.S. missile at a time of heightened bilateral tensions following the U.S. killing of General Qassem Soleimani, head of the IRGC’s elite Qods Force, in Baghdad and Iranian retaliatory strikes against U.S. military installations in Iraq.[fn]See Crisis Group Middle East Report N°210, The Iran Nuclear Deal at Four: A Requiem?, 16 January 2020.Hide Footnote

The longer the immediate public health emergency festers and the larger the accumulated financial cost, the more the sense of government ineptitude and mismanagement may increase as well.[fn]A study by one of Iran’s top universities has projected that the country’s COVID-19 outbreak could grow in severity for a further two months, with a worst-case scenario of up to 3.5 million dead. Under optimal conditions of internal mitigation and external assistance, the Sharif University of Technology scholars estimated a minimum of 12,000 deaths. Shabnam von Hein, “Iran faces catastrophic death toll from coronavirus”, Deutsche Welle, 17 March 2020.Hide Footnote Too, Iran’s hardliners have hammered away at the Rouhani administration’s crisis management and appeals for international assistance as “begging diplomacy”, insisting that Iran’s domestic capacities are sufficient to weather the storm.[fn]See, for example, Kamal Ahmadi, “گشایش اقتصادی گروگان نگاه به خارج ” [“Economic opening is hostage to external hopes”], Kayhan, 15 March 2020.Hide Footnote Rouhani has in turn appealed for unity in responding to the crisis, insisting that “now is not the time for partisanship and politicking”.[fn]“President in cabinet session”, President.ir, 29 March 2020.Hide Footnote

As the government’s stream of own-goals erodes public trust, the IRGC is increasingly portraying itself as the only competent force in the country. A senior Iranian official said: “the fact that the Rouhani administration finally enforced the same social distancing and travel restrictions for which the military had been advocating after two weeks’ delay made the former look as indecisive as the latter did prescient”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Tehran, 25 March 2020.Hide Footnote Even Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said the crisis had underscored “the necessity for renewal of the method of governance”.[fn]U.S. trying to turn Iran into isolated island in ocean of miseries”, IFP News, 18 March 2020.Hide Footnote Having won a landslide in the parliamentary elections and with the 2021 presidential election looming, hardliners – many of whom have a military background – are seizing the opportunity to promise more effective leadership.[fn]The runoff elections for eleven remaining seats, which were scheduled for 17 April, have been postponed to 11 September because of the outbreak. The former mayor of Tehran and a front runner for speaker of the next parliament, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, tweeted: “I’m sorry that the advice of the concerned was overlooked, and now I have to say this publicly: Corona won’t be contained with optimism and delays … we only have one path forward: extreme quarantine and national-level temporary restrictions”. Tweet by Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, @mb_ghalibaf, incoming parliamentarian, 1:01pm, 26 March 2020.Hide Footnote Should they convince the public of this notion, the militarisation of Iranian politics could accelerate. In the meantime, while the COVID-19 outbreak has reduced the odds of a renewed uprising for now, it is bound to deepen Iran’s economic troubles and magnify popular demands for change that could ultimately push demonstrators back into the streets.[fn]There is historical precedent: the government’s failure to manage a cholera outbreak in 1904 and the economic devastation that the illness left behind led to widespread protests, ushering in the 1906 Constitutional Revolution. See Amir Afkhami, “Pandemics Ravaged Iran Long Before the Coronavirus”, Foreign Affairs, 2 March 2020.Hide Footnote

With the 2021 presidential election looming, hardliners are seizing the opportunity to promise more effective leadership.

The politics of the outbreak are churning against the backdrop of wider U.S.-Iran animosity that has grown steadily since Tehran decided in May 2019 to counter U.S. “maximum pressure” with “maximum resistance”. Less than three months have passed since tensions nearly boiled over into conflict after the U.S. killed Soleimani.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Iran Nuclear Deal at Four, op. cit.Hide Footnote Since those exchanges, tensions have continued to simmer, as underscored in March by a string of rocket attacks in Iraq. One of these attacks, by an Iran-backed paramilitary group against Camp Taji on 11 March, killed three members of the U.S.-led counter-ISIS coalition and injured a further twelve; another barrage upon the same facility three days later injured three U.S. troops.[fn]“Coalition casualties in Iraq”, Operation Inherent Resolve, 12 March 2020; Jim Garamone, “3 U.S. service members wounded in Iraq attack”, U.S. Department of Defense, 15 March 2020.Hide Footnote Some U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, reportedly argued in favour of retaliating directly against Iranian military assets in the Gulf or on the country’s own soil, though the U.S. military, conscious of the military risks and political costs of such an action to U.S.-Iraqi ties, advocated for a more limited response and eventually targeted Iraqi paramilitary facilities in Iraq.[fn]Mark Mazzetti, Helene Cooper, Julian Barnes, Alissa Rubin and Eric Schmitt, “As Iran reels, Trump aides clash over escalating military showdown”, The New York Times, 21 March 2020; and Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt, “Pentagon order to plan for escalation in Iraq meets warning from top commander”, The New York Times, 27 March 2020.Hide Footnote

Little suggests that the COVID-19 crisis is prompting either Washington or Tehran to change their respective positions. Not only has the U.S. failed to offer Iran sanctions relief amid the pandemic, it has also levied new sanctions, unveiling in the course of a single week restrictions on five Iranian nuclear scientists and sanctions against seventeen entities and individuals linked to Iran’s petrochemical trade.[fn]“Constraining Iranian Nuclear Scientists”, U.S. State Department, 18 March 2020; “Sanctions on Entities Trading or Transporting Iranian Petrochemicals”, U.S. State Department, 18 March 2020; “Treasury Targets Companies Facilitating Iran’s Petrochemical Sales”, U.S. Treasury Department, 19 March 2020.Hide Footnote It subsequently designated twenty more entities and individuals allegedly involved in, inter alia, “transferring lethal aid” from the IRGC to Iraqi paramilitary forces.[fn]“Treasury Designated Vast Network of IRGC-QF Officials and Front Companies in Iraq, Iran”, U.S. Treasury Department, 26 March 2020.Hide Footnote

Some in the Trump administration apparently hope that the compounded effects of COVID-19 and U.S. sanctions will bring Tehran to the table.[fn]A U.S. diplomat assessed that the coming months could offer an opportunity to hit the pause button on further escalation: “There may be a window in the spring and summer for a negotiated ceasefire that puts us into a holding pattern until the November [U.S. presidential] elections. A combination of pressures on the Iranian leadership … would leave the regime needing relief for limited stability”. Crisis Group interview, Washington, March 2020.Hide Footnote Yet there is reason to believe that Iran will not be interested in negotiations from a position of weakness and at a time when it deeply distrusts the U.S. Speaking before the pandemic outbreak, a senior Iranian official assessed:

Trump just wants a photo op, not a mutually beneficial deal. He has been misled by Pompeo and others to believe that we will fall by this fall. So it’s useless to even contemplate negotiating with this administration.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Munich, February 2020.Hide Footnote

Washington’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak, which in Tehran is seen as increasing the suffering of the Iranian people, likely has further dimmed prospects for negotiations over the kind of deal for which the U.S. has called. As an Iranian official put it:

The corona crisis was the last straw, as it showed the immoral cruelty of this [U.S.] administration. Who would think of a country in the midst of public health crisis as ripe for bombing [referring to Pompeo]? Team Trump is worse than Yazid [the second caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, who killed the prophet’s grandson, Imam Hussein, in 680, and is one of the most hated figures in the Shia world]. They have raised the political costs of negotiations to the extent it has become prohibitive for any Iranian politician to engage them.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Tehran, March 2020.Hide Footnote

If anything, Iran may now see some benefit in raising tensions with the U.S. – and lesser cost, as officials could assess that the Trump administration will not want to add an external crisis to its domestic one.[fn]Courtney Kube and Carol Lee, “Trump nixed aggressive response to attacks by Iranian proxies because of coronavirus, officials say”, NBC News, 19 March 2020.Hide Footnote U.S. defence officials have warned that the likelihood of further attacks by Iran or its allies remains significant, and perhaps even more acute as a result of the pandemic.[fn]On 13 March, the commander of U.S. Central Command, General Kenneth McKenzie, assessed that the Iranians “are actively seeking ways to achieve destabilization that would allow them to escape the strictures of the maximum pressure campaign … the illusion of normality is just that: It’s the illusion of normality”. McKenzie further posited that “the net effect of … COVID-19 is that it has increased pressure on Iran’s strategic decision-makers”. Quoted in “Marine Corps General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., Commander, U.S. Central Command Holds a Press Briefing on Defensive Strikes Against Iran”, U.S. Department of Defense, 13 March 2020.Hide Footnote Tehran may at one time have hoped that, with the initial shock of U.S. sanctions behind it, its economy would stabilise and it therefore could afford to wait out the Trump administration – at least until the November 2020 U.S. presidential election. But those hopes likely are now dashed by the economic devastation wrought by COVID-19.

As a result, it is possible that Tehran will decide to try raising the cost of the U.S. “maximum pressure” strategy by resorting to greater provocation in the region through its allies. Rouhani himself suggested, in the midst of the pandemic, that Iran’s response to the Soleimani killing remains incomplete, remarking on 18 March that “we have not left – and will not leave – his assassination unanswered”.[fn]“President at cabinet session”, President.ir, March 2020.Hide Footnote President Donald Trump has likewise cited “information and belief” to warn of Iranian or Iran-linked strikes against U.S. interests in Iraq, threatening Tehran with “a very heavy price” if one occurs.[fn]Tweet by Donald J. Trump, @realDonaldTrump, U.S. president, 1:05pm, 1 April 2020.Hide Footnote

It is possible that Tehran will decide to try raising the cost of the U.S. “maximum pressure” strategy by resorting to greater provocation in the region through its allies.

A regional escalation could appeal to the Iranian leadership for several reasons: it could divert attention from the mounting economic troubles and popular dissatisfaction at home; achieve the long-sought goal of pushing the U.S. out of Iraq with perceived lower risks of backlash, given President Trump’s preoccupation with containing COVID-19’s spread and its economic fallout in the U.S.; and in the opinion of some in Tehran, bring down Trump’s presidency with a shocking attack closer to the U.S. elections.[fn]An Iranian national security official said: “We brought down Jimmy Carter’s presidency [with the hostage crisis] and can do it again. Trump is not immune to an October surprise”. Crisis Group interview, Tehran, February 2020.Hide Footnote These calculations might lead Iran to take bigger risks.

Escalation on the nuclear front is another option, if probably less likely. Tehran appears loath to push too far, too fast, lest it lose the political support of Russia, China and the Europeans and prompt them to restore UN sanctions, which would recategorise Iran as a threat to international peace and security under the UN Charter’s Chapter XII and prevent the lifting of the UN embargo on Iran’s access to the conventional arms market due to expire in October.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iranian officials, Munich and Tehran, February-March 2020. Iran has declared that UN sanctions snapback would constitute a red line, prompting it to withdraw from not just the JCPOA but also the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). “Iran to quit NPT if its nuclear programme referred to UN: Zarif”, Al Jazeera, 20 January 2020.Hide Footnote As such, while Tehran remains in breach of its commitments under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it has neither significantly ramped up its nuclear activities nor tampered with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) inspections.

Before the pandemic, the leadership’s assessment, according to a senior Iranian official, was that Iran and the deal’s remaining parties were in a de facto less-for-less arrangement pursuant to which Iran did not benefit from the accord’s economic dividends and in turn did not observe restrictions on its uranium enrichment program.[fn]“Verification and Monitoring in the Islamic Republic of Iran in Light of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015)”, GOV/INF/2020/5, IAEA, 3 March 2020.Hide Footnote “There are no more limits to shed, and at this stage we don’t need more enrichment. So the nuclear issue is on the back burner for now”, he said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Munich, February 2020.Hide Footnote This attitude clearly concerns European officials, cognisant that Iran is gaining irreversible knowledge through research and development and increasing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium – now sufficient for a single nuclear weapon if enriched further. But after initiating the deal’s dispute resolution mechanism, they have done little to accelerate the process and may well have decided to drag it out until after the U.S. elections, assuming Iran does not significantly ratchet up its nuclear activities or ratchet down the IAEA’s access.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, European and UK officials, Washington, January-March 2020.Hide Footnote

There is a ticking bomb that risks sabotaging Iran’s relations with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

While the COVID-19 outbreak has had no impact on the IAEA’s access to Iran so far, there is a ticking bomb that risks sabotaging Iran’s relations with the agency.[fn]A senior IAEA official said: “the pandemic has had no impact on IAEA’s inspections in Iran or anywhere in the world. … Of course, everything now is much more complicated because of travel limitations, but we were able to maintain our inspection plan”. Crisis Group email correspondence, March 2020.Hide Footnote Iran has refused to provide access to two sites that the IAEA deems suspicious, or to answer questions related to undeclared raw uranium in a third. The IAEA’s director general, Rafael Grossi, has warned that “we will be walking toward a crisis” if Iran does not cooperate in clarifying “a number of questions related to possible undeclared nuclear material and nuclear-related activities”.[fn]Grossi quoted in John Irish, “U.N.’s nuclear chief to Iran: Cooperate or face new crisis”, Reuters, 3 March 2020. See also “IAEA Director General’s Introductory Statement to the Board of Governors”, IAEA, 9 March 2020.Hide Footnote Iranian officials contend that the allegations are false and based on the “nuclear archive” that Israel says it spirited out of Iran in 2018; and they say they fear that responding to the agency’s demands would become a slippery slope of unending harassment aimed at gathering more information about Tehran’s pre-2003 nuclear activities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Iranian officials, Vienna, November 2019. To learn more about the “nuclear archive”, consisting of more than 100,000 physical and digital files relating to Iran’s nuclear program removed by Israeli intelligence operatives from Tehran in 2018, see “The Iran Nuclear Archive: Impressions and Implications”, Harvard University Belfer Center, April 2019.Hide Footnote But Tehran’s refusal to cooperate with the IAEA could once again turn into a major non-proliferation crisis, and thereby deal the JCPOA a death blow.

V. Viral Diplomacy?

The COVID-19 crisis is a moment of reckoning for U.S.-Iran relations. Holding the current course has clear and sobering implications: for Iran, a growing humanitarian toll due to unmet medical needs, government dithering and mismanagement, and, in the longer term, a worsening economic crisis; and, for the U.S., continued failure of a strategy aimed at forcing Iran to the negotiating table or at changing its regime coupled with an increasingly combustible regional environment. Tehran’s approach will not compel the Trump administration to revise its strategy; Washington’s approach will not lead Tehran to submit to its demands. In this sense, both could be engaged in magical thinking. Instead, they should seize the moment and engage in a form of COVID-19-inspired diplomacy.

Iran, which has furloughed one dual UK/Iranian national to her parents’ residence and a U.S. citizen to a private hospital among tens of thousands of furloughed Iranian prisoners, should take a further step and furlough remaining dual and foreign nationals in its custody on humanitarian grounds.[fn]Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual UK-Iranian citizen detained by Iran in 2016, was released on 17 March for two weeks, a period extended by a further two weeks on 28 March. “Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe ‘being considered for clemency’ in Iran as leave from prison extended”, Sky News, 28 March 2020. Michael White, a U.S. citizen, was furloughed on 19 March, prompting Secretary of State Pompeo to affirm a U.S. commitment to see White and other U.S. citizens released. “Medical Furlough of U.S. Citizen Michael White”, U.S. State Department, 19 March 2020. Iran has made similar requests of the U.S., with Foreign Minister Zarif on 27 March maintaining that the “U.S. has taken several Iranian scientists hostage” and calling for their release. See tweet by Javad Zarif, @JZarif, Iranian foreign minister, 7:44am, 27 March 2020.Hide Footnote Given the risk that they could become infected with the disease, it would be far better if Tehran were to release U.S. citizens and allow them to depart Iran; while Iran ought to let them go unconditionally, realistically it may insist on an exchange, as it did with France whose detained citizen was swapped for an Iranian arrested in France and whom the U.S. wanted extradited on sanctions violations charges.[fn]Iran frees French researcher in apparent prisoner swap”, Agence France Presse, 21 March 2020. In reaction to the exchange, the U.S. said it “deeply regrets France’s unilateral decision to release Iranian national Jalal Rohollahnejad from its custody” and called it “regrettable … that France failed to uphold its treaty obligations”. “France’s Unilateral Release of Iranian National Jalal Rohollahnejad”, U.S. State Department, 22 March 2020.Hide Footnote

For its part, Washington could take steps to help Tehran contain the humanitarian crisis caused by COVID-19 by expanding and clarifying the definition of humanitarian goods covered under existing Treasury Department general licences and announce that no transaction related to humanitarian trade with Iran will be penalised for the next 90 to 120 days.[fn]For more details on how the U.S. could adjust its sanctions policy without lifting the restrictions to aid the Iranian people amid the pandemic, see Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, “How to help Iran fight the virus”, Bloomberg, 24 March 2020; Katherine Bauer and Dana Stroul, “Sanctions relief isn’t necessary to assist Iran’s coronavirus response”, The Hill, 31 March 2020.Hide Footnote The Treasury Department should accelerate the rate and increase the number of licences it issues to companies interested in exporting humanitarian goods not covered by general licences to Iran.[fn]According to the Office for Foreign Assets Control, in charge of enforcing U.S. sanctions, from July to September 2018, fewer companies applied for authorisation to export goods to Iran and the rate of approval dropped from more than 50 per cent in 2017 to 10 per cent in the first quarter of 2019. “Second Quarter Report”, Office of Foreign Assets Control, U.S. Treasury Department, March 2019. While in February the Treasury Department issued a new general licence allowing Iran’s central bank to conduct humanitarian trade-related transactions, the licence does not cover advanced medical equipment. “General License No. 8 - Authorizing Certain Humanitarian Trade Transactions Involving the Central Bank of Iran”, U.S. Treasury Department, 27 February 2020.Hide Footnote The U.S. could also provide assistance to international organisations, like WHO or the International Committee of the Red Cross, for on-shipment to Iran.

Washington could take steps to help Tehran contain the humanitarian crisis caused by COVID-19.

The Trump administration and opponents of sanctions relief have argued that financial aid to Iran would be self-defeating given the vast amounts of money the leadership spends on supporting Iran’s network of partners and proxies throughout the region, and given the alleged funds held by the supreme leader.[fn]For example, see “No time to end Iran sanctions”, Wall Street Journal, 25 March 2020; Mark Dubowitz and Richard Goldberg, “The coronavirus is absolutely no excuse to lift sanctions on Iran”, Foreign Policy, 31 March 2020.Hide Footnote But Iran’s government’s access to funds aside, sanctions have, according to most experts, impeded access to important medical items. At this stage, the humanitarian imperative ought to take primacy, not only for Iran’s sake but also to contain the virus more broadly. Indeed, Iran’s inability to contain COVID-19 will have ripple effects throughout the region. In addition, there are ways of minimising any risk that assistance could be diverted. The U.S. could require any financial aid to pass through channels, such as the one established through Switzerland, which meet Washington’s due diligence requirements, to ensure that it is used solely for the purchase of medicine, medical equipment and basic staples.

If the two sides can reach such a humanitarian understanding, it could lead to a second phase of de-escalation. The Central Bank of Iran has asked the IMF for a $5 billion emergency loan.[fn]Najmeh Bozorgmehr, “Iran asks IMF for $5bn to fight coronavirus”, Financial Times, 12 March 2020. It is the first time in more than six decades that Iran has asked the IMF for a loan. The IMF has asked for additional data and information from Tehran, which did not allow the IMF’s mission to visit the country in 2019 for its annual evaluation of the Iranian economy. Crisis Group interview, Iranian official, Tehran, March 2020.Hide Footnote Iranian officials believe that with support from Europe they can meet the 51 per cent threshold of stakeholders’ votes required for granting the loan, even if the U.S. votes against it.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Tehran, March 2020. Under Section 1621 of the International Financial Institutions Act (P.L. 95-118; 22 U.S.C. 262p-4q), U.S. representatives at the IMF are required to oppose financial assistance to countries designated as “state sponsors of terrorism” by the U.S. State Department.Hide Footnote If they are correct, Trump would have nothing to lose by waiving the requirement for U.S. representatives to vote against the loan; instead, Washington could demand that the IMF transfer the funds to the Swiss humanitarian channel. Tehran could reciprocate this support by refraining from further ramping up its nuclear program and urging its paramilitary allies inside Iraq and Yemen to refrain from further attacks on U.S. or U.S.-allied forces and assets there.

Beyond the U.S.-Iranian relationship, a regional de-escalation is long overdue and made all the more urgent by the pandemic. Saudi Arabia could follow the United Arab Emirates’ example of offering assistance to Iran; Tehran could reciprocate by backing UN-led efforts to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough in Yemen. Specifically, Iran could urge the Huthis to unconditionally support a UN plan for a nationwide ceasefire and confidence-building measures that open the way to a coordinated national COVID-19 response and peace talks. For this approach to work, however, Riyadh and the internationally recognised government of Yemen will have to make the same unconditional commitments.[fn]Crisis Group Statement, “A Coronavirus Ceasefire Offers a Way Out for War-torn Yemen”, 27 March 2020.Hide Footnote

Beyond the U.S.-Iranian relationship, a regional de-escalation is long overdue and made all the more urgent by the pandemic.

None of this is likely or easy, but all of it should be viewed as necessary to fight a pandemic that respects no border and takes no side in geostrategic rivalries. The crisis provides an opportunity for unlocking diplomacy between Iran and the U.S. that otherwise has little chance of resuming before the end of 2020. In the absence of such diplomacy, spiralling tensions in the coming months could put many lives, Iranian and other, at risk, deepen enmity between the two nations and widen the space for miscalculation. By contrast, a mutual exchange of humanitarian measures could re-establish minimal trust and perhaps pave the way for the kind of understanding that Crisis Group and others have called for: the U.S. providing Iran with meaningful sanctions relief in return for Tehran reversing its nuclear escalation, halting its hostile regional operations and agreeing to negotiations over a broader deal.

VI. Conclusion

Nearly two years of “maximum pressure” have yielded little strategic gain for the U.S. Iran’s nuclear program has grown rather than stopped; a strategy intended to curb Tehran’s regional influence has instead led to mounting tensions across the board and repeatedly brought the two sides to the brink of open conflict. Likewise, nearly a year of “maximum resistance” by Iran has failed to yield an economic reprieve, hurting the government’s credibility with the public. The COVID-19 crisis potentially affords an opportunity to both nations to mitigate suffering and move away from zero-sum strife. The U.S. and Iran should seize it.

Washington/Tehran/Brussels, 3 April 2020