Iran’s emergence as a hot zone for the coronavirus further complicates that country’s relationships with its neighbours at a time when its economy is sliding deeper into recession.
US President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran by tightening economic sanctions coincides with a spreading health crisis that will test a hardline leadership.
Iranian confidence in its rulers is stretched in any case – there has been persistent unrest in which violent clashes with the authorities over economic hardship have resulted in dozens of deaths.
Battered by a sanctions regime, a deepening economic retrenchment and now a health emergency, Iran’s leaders will feel they are more than usually beleaguered.
Coming on top of America’s assassination of Iran’s military commander, Major General Qassim Suleimani, in early January, these are precarious moments for the Iranian leadership.
Now the question is whether an overstretched Iran will feel obliged to pull back from its expensive involvement in Syria and its support for allies in Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere in a troubled region.
In other words, will its leadership, under considerable pressure at home, stage a retreat, or even decide it is in its interests to seek some sort of accommodation with a US administration that is bent on tightening the screws? US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week imposed additional curbs on travel by figures close to Iran’s rulers.
The alternative is for Tehran to withdraw into its shell while it rides out economic and other pressures. Given the parlous state of Iran’s economy, this will be easier said than done.
In all of this, the survival of an embattled regime in power since the overthrow of the shah in 1979 will be paramount.
Whether that prompts a rethink of Iran’s refusal to negotiate a replacement nuclear deal without sanctions being lifted first remains to be seen.
These options will be canvassed behind the scenes in arguments between moderates close to Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, and hardline elements aligned with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
As things stand, it appears the hardliners have secured the upper hand.
Iran’s parliamentary elections last week made this clear. Hardliners achieved a near clean sweep after the powerful Guardians Council excluded thousands of moderate candidates from the race.
Appointed by Khamenei, the council vets suitable candidates for elections.
Dozens of moderate members of parliament were denied the opportunity to recontest.
Ali Vaez, director of the Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, said:
This is 2004-2005 all over again: a shift of the centre of Iranian politics to the right, harbingered by a major victory by the hardliners in low-turnout parliamentary elections, followed by a takeover of the presidency by the hardliners.
This is potentially bad news for President Rouhani, who had sought an accommodation with the US and its allies after signing a deal in 2015 in which Iran agreed to freeze its nuclear weapons program.
Iran will have presidential elections next year.
Trump took the US out of the nuclear deal in 2018. As a consequence, Tehran has been edging away from commitments made under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to halt its enrichment processes.
Complicating all of this is the coronavirus epidemic in a country where health services are already stretched.
By mid-week, Iran had reported 95 cases, but this almost certainly significantly understates the situation. The country is believed to have suffered the most deaths from the virus outside China.
Iran’s efforts to curb the contagion are vastly hampered by the fact that it is a destination for millions of Shia pilgrims annually from surrounding countries. These include Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Gulf states.
The holy city of Qom has become a hotbed of the virus. Multiple deaths have been reported there.
Symbolic of Tehran’s challenges in getting the coronavirus under control is the case of its deputy health minister.
Earlier this week, Iraj Harirchi had denied the authorities were covering up the scale of the outbreak. He later self-reported he was suffering from the disease.
This will have done little to engender confidence in the government’s ability to contain the disease or provide a credible accounting of its spread in a country of 80 million.
Adding to concerns region-wide is that Iran is believed to be the source of infections that have emerged among its neighbours, including Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait and Oman.
All these countries have now imposed restrictions on travel to and from the Islamic Republic. Dubai, a transit hub and home to the airlines Emirates and Etihad, has suspended all passenger and cargo flights to Iran for a week as a “precautionary measure”.
Curbs on travel will have a further dampening effect on Iran’s economy. It’s already reeling from tough sanctions, which include wide-ranging restrictions on the country’s oil exports, its economic lifeblood.
In October, the International Monetary Fund reported Iran’s economy would contract by 9.5% in 2019. This was the worst year for Iran since 1984, at the height of the Iran-Iraq war.
In 2019, the only countries to do worse, according to the IMF, were Libya, in the grip of a civil war, which suffered a 19% contraction, and Venezuela, which shrank 35%.
The IMF and World Bank had predicted incremental growth, if that, for Iran in 2020. In view of coronavirus concerns, marginal growth now seems highly unlikely.
Iran is also stricken by skyrocketing rates of inflation. The IMF put the figure for 2019 at 35.7%. The Statistical Centre for Iran assessed the number higher at nearly 50%.
Food and fuel costs have gone through the roof. This has been the main cause of the civil unrest that continues to beset the regime. With US-sponsored sanctions in place and now a health crisis bedevilling the country, there is little relief in sight.
What is clear is Iran is facing its most challenging moment since 1988 and the end of its war with Iraq in which an estimated 500,000 Iranians were killed. War costs bled the economy dry.
In some ways, the latest situation may be more challenging for the regime given that Iranians were unified in a war effort. That unity is now a distant memory.
For many, the killing was unexpected. But this was no Trump administration miscalculation. It’s the latest in a wider decay of the liberal norms that underpin diplomacy, conflict resolution and the day-to-day functioning of interstate relations.
Once championed by Washington, these rules have become increasingly rejected under President Donald Trump. That threatens to inject even more instability into our global system.
“Norms” is the term foreign policy people use to mean actions that are implicitly or explicitly acknowledged as reasonable for states to undertake – like a rulebook that guides the conduct of international relations. Norms influence everything from human rights protection to when and how it is appropriate to use force.
Norms differ from laws, as they lack formal enforcement mechanisms. Nevertheless, there can be major repercussions when they are violated.
Norms change over time, often shaped by dominant cultural, ideological and political trends.
For instance, in previous centuries, war was seen as a natural part of statecraft and something to be celebrated. However, this view has changed markedly, largely due to the catastrophic great wars. Today, war is viewed by most countries as something to be avoided, and only used as a last resort.
Norms provide a kind of “standard operating procedure” for states, which is especially pertinent in times of crisis and uncertainty. Understanding that one’s rivals generally wish to avoid conflict allows states to formulate policies aimed at deescalation and détente.
When countries deviate from these norms, however, it injects unpredictability into the system. This can lead to miscalculation, panicked escalation and, ultimately, violent conflict.
The most influential body of norms today are encapsulated in what foreign policy analysts call the liberal international order, which emerged from Western consensus after the second world war.
This order does several important things, such as:
The liberal international order rejects actions – such as the assassination of state officials like Soleimani – which are likely to inflame, rather than resolve, tensions.
Many scholars and analysts argue that such norms have been a significant factor in the period of relative global peace since the second world war.
Over the past 70 years, the US been at the centre of many of the institutions that promote these rules, including the WTO, NATO, UN and IMF.
While the constraints of the liberal international order have not always benefited it – Washington has lost numerous trade disputes in the WTO, for instance – the US has been able to shape the very nature of the international system.
It’s one thing to win in a game, quite another to dictate the rules by which that game is played.
As a result, the US has sought to promote itself not just as an adherent of liberal norms, but as an exemplar of them. Notable exceptions not withstanding, this has been a position held across both Republican and Democratic administrations, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama.
The US abandoned the practice of political assassinations in the wake of the infamous Church committee of 1975.
This inquiry exposed repeated CIA attempts to kill foreign leaders and officials. Such clandestine activities were seen as out of sync with the strengthening liberal norms of the day. If the US was really committed to promoting the order, how could it engage in actions that flagrantly undermined peace and stability?
In the modern era, the targeting of state officials in assassinations is understood to be strictly verboten and reckless. This position allows officials to engage with more confidence and good faith in diplomacy, and dissuades states from engaging in such activities.
In retrospect, Trump’s willingness to reject liberal norms on assassinations hardly seems out of character for someone who has shown profound hostility for them.
Trump’s blase attitude towards the importance of liberal norms and institutions has left traditional allies feeling increasingly insecure and unable to rely on the US.
Dictatorial leaders of rival states have felt empowered by Trump’s own penchant for authoritarian behaviour at home, and more confident to violate international norms without fear of significant collective reprisal.
Soleimani’s assassination presents a further worrying decline in the influence of liberal norms. Not only does it position the US as a transgressive state with little concern for the rules of the international system, it also provides precedent for states to engage in such activities themselves.
At the best of times, this would be an unpleasant development.
Within the chaos of our current world “order”, however, the resumption of political assassination poses serious concerns for the future stability of the entire international system.
While there is much speculation about the cause of the Ukrainian airliner that crashed after take-off from Tehran’s airport this week, killing all 176 people on board, there is presently very little factual information to go on.
Western intelligence has indicated a surface-to-air missile likely hit the plane in what may have been an “unintentional” act – an assertion Iran quickly dismissed.
As with any other crash, the world aviation community needs to know what caused this one in the interest of ongoing flight safety.
Political tensions between Iran and the US may make the investigation more challenging, but they should not prevent a thorough systematic analysis from occurring and the cause of the crash to ultimately be established.
The flight recorders hold the key to establishing what actually happened and why. And here’s where the political tensions are most problematic – Iran initially said it would not hand over the black boxes to the manufacturer of the aircraft, Boeing, or the US.
But new reports say Iran has now invited the US National Transportation Safety Board and Boeing to take part in the investigation.
Under the International Civil Aviation Organisation Annex 13 convention, the US has the right to appoint an adviser to the investigation, as does the aircraft manufacturer. The convention presumes a level of cooperation between all parties involved in crash investigations, which could prove difficult in this case. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a proper investigation won’t or can’t be conducted.
Responsibility for the investigation sits with the Iranians, but under the UN Civil Aviation Conventions, they can request assistance from any other country, if they don’t have the capacity to conduct it themselves.
There are many other countries with the necessary expertise to assist, including recovering flight data from recorders with very significant damage. France, Canada, UK, the Netherlands, Germany and Australia could all help, for example.
Other countries can only step in, however, if invited by Iran or if Iran chooses not to conduct the investigation.
What’s most important is that whoever leads the investigation must have access to all the information – the wreckage itself, flight data, radar data, maintenance records, crew data, flight plans, load sheets, and passenger and cargo manifests. Otherwise, the wrong conclusions can be reached.
There also needs to be a parallel field investigation analysing the wreckage.
First, investigators should be ensuring they have accounted for all the wreckage. If some parts separated from the aircraft in-flight, they may be found some distance from the main wreckage site and may hold key clues that could lead to a better understanding of the cause of the crash.
As such, the terrain under the flight path needs to be surveyed carefully to locate all items from the aircraft.
Clearly, it will also be important to examine the wreckage of the engines for any evidence of pre-crash damage.
For example, if a fire had been burning inside the engine cowling, there may be evidence of scorching. Analysis of the internal engine components should also make clear whether the engines were still delivering power when the plane made impact with the ground or if there was a pre-crash structural or component failure.
Investigators should also look at the wing and fuselage surfaces next to the engines for any pre-impact damage. If an engine failure occurred, there may be evidence of impact damage from engine components after they burst out of the armoured casing.
Analysing the aircraft engines, wing and fuselage surfaces may also provide evidence if the aircraft was struck by a missile.
This was the case with Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which was shot down over Ukraine in 2014, killing all 298 people aboard. There was clear evidence of the aircraft structures being penetrated from outside the plane by high-speed particles.
Similar forensic analysis can be conducted on the remnants of the Boeing 737 in Iran, even if a high degree of fragmentation occurred in the crash. This should reveal the truth if a missile was responsible.
Of course, it would be usual for the aircraft manufacturer to be involved. After all, it knows more about the technologies involved in building and operating the aircraft than anyone else.
That said, there are many global agencies that also know a lot about the engineering and operation of the B737-800 plane, such as the airworthiness authorities in other countries, who could be called upon to participate.
No doubt, Ukraine will be heavily involved, as will Canada, due to the number of Canadians who lost their lives in the crash. So, if Boeing was excluded from the investigation, it might be a set-back, but not a show-stopper.
Boeing is, however, responsible for assuring the ongoing safety standards for the global B737 fleet, so whether it is directly involved in the investigation or not, it is imperative the reasons for the crash are shared with global aviation agencies, the manufacturer and all other airlines.
It is worth reflecting in these sad occasions that the purpose of a crash investigation is to prevent future incidents. Unless the actual cause of this crash is understood, any possible problems in the global flight safety system may go unrectified, making the risk of future crashes higher than it otherwise would be.
The impact of the crash on the families of the victims is also immense and immeasurable. This is another reason why a proper, thorough and systematic investigation is so important. It ensures those who have tragically lost their lives, and their families and friends, will not have suffered in vain.
US President Donald Trump’s statement overnight confirming the US would not take further military action in response to Iran’s missile strikes on American bases in Iraq eases regional tensions for now.
In hitting back at the US over last week’s assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Iran was clearly pulling its punches.
The missiles it fired at US bases near Baghdad and in northern Iraq produced no US casualties and appear to have done little damage to the bases. Media reports quoting Western intelligence sources claim that some of the missiles were aimed deliberately short of the target. It’s clear the Iranian regime did not want to give Trump an excuse for retaliation.
Moreover, the regime has described its missile attacks as a “proportionate” response to Soleimani’s killing – which it obviously was not. It also said its response was “concluded”, implying it would not launch further strikes against the US.
In addition, according to several media reports, Iranian officials have claimed to their domestic audience the strikes killed more than 80 US military personnel, but the US is hiding the real toll. Such statements are aimed at quelling popular pressure for a more robust response.
Fortunately for the region, Trump’s overnight statement indicates he is prepared to leave matters at that. In addition, the crash of a Ukrainian airliner shortly after take-off from Tehran airport appears to have had nothing to do with the US. The latest indications are the plane was likely struck by an Iranian missile, though investigations are continuing.
That means that, for now, the risk of escalating tit-for-tat strikes or something closer to all out war between the US and Iran has receded. Most in the region will now breathe easier. This is especially true for Iraq, which could have been drawn into a broader conflict as there are still about 5,000 US troops stationed there.
But many questions remain unresolved, any of which could heighten the risk of renewed military conflict between the two sides.
A first friction point is whether US troops will remain in Iraq much longer.
Last week, the Iraqi parliament ordered the expulsion of all foreign forces (which include Australian military trainers) from Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has said he will implement the parliament’s demand – which the parliament itself has no power to enforce.
Abdul Mahdi is also under enormous pressure from Iran to expel US forces. The Iranian regime would clearly see their removal as additional payback to the US for the Soleimani assassination.
But Abdul Mahdi, a moderate, is known to fear a possible resurgence of the Islamic State in Iraq. The group’s rise there in 2014 was the reason the Iraqi government invited US forces to return after they had left in 2011. Iraqi forces by themselves would probably not be able to contain IS.
Moreover, the US has given Iraq US$5.8 billion in military aid since 2014.
A further problem from Abdel Mahdi is that Trump has threatened sanctions on Iraq if it expels US forces. He has implied that such sanctions would also include repayment of aid moneys.
While US troops remain in Iraq, there is the constant prospect of lethal attacks on them by a range of Iraqi militias loyal to Iran, such as Kata’ib Hezbollah, the militia that started the latest US-Iranian confrontation by killing a US contractor in late December.
Another militia strike that resulted in a US death would almost certainly spur a Trump military response against Iran – which Iran would, in turn, likely react to.
The second friction point is Iran’s statement following the Soleimani killing that it is no longer bound by the restrictions of the nuclear deal Iran signed with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany in 2015.
This agreement, from which Trump withdrew in 2018, put restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment and stockpile levels with the aim of preventing the country from developing a nuclear weapon.
Iran said earlier this week it would no longer remain bound by the deal’s restrictions, meaning it would, if it chose, exceed the enrichment and stockpiling limitations. At the same time, however, it said it would remain within the deal and continue to allow inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
This playing with words appears to have been aimed at keeping the Europeans (Britain, France and Germany) from re-imposing UN sanctions on Iran if it formally left the agreement.
Significantly, in his overnight statement, Trump emphasised that Iran would never be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon. The strong implication was that if Iran is discovered to be enriching uranium to weapons grade, the US will take action to stop this.
Such action would probably be military, though the US has worked with Israel in the past on cyber-technology to stymie Iran’s enrichment centrifuges.
That raises the question of how effective continuing IAEA oversight of Iran’s nuclear program will be. Before the nuclear deal was agreed, Iran was adept at putting obstacles in the way of IAEA inspectors – though it does not appear to have done so since the agreement entered into force.
For all the fragility of the current situation, there are two reasons to hope that calm will prevail for at least the next few weeks.
The first is that Iran’s options are limited. The relatively minor missile attacks on Wednesday indicate Iran does want to take on the US in direct conflict. Iran knows it would suffer.
The second is that Trump appears happy to declare victory and leave matters roughly as they stand.
He can boast to his now fiercely re-energised base that his action in eliminating Soleimani has made Americans safer. He also won’t want to get into a major Middle East conflict in an election year. Indeed, the opposite. He will almost certainly try to remove US troops from Iraq this year – but on his terms, not Iran’s.
So far, this is a win for Trump.
Updates story previously published with new details on plane crash indicating cause was likely an Iranian missile.