All is Not Well with the State of Iran.
Revered General Qassem Soleimani is dead, killed by an American drone missile strike on the outskirts of Baghdad. A Ukrainian jetliner with one hundred and seventy-six passengers was accidentally shot out of the skies by Tehran. Coronavirus is now spreading across the country, with public health experts unsure if the country is capable of containing the outbreak. And the triumph of conservatives in the recent parliamentary elections have set the stage for the return of a hardliner to the presidency.
And so it is perhaps no surprise that the UN’s nuclear agency is now reporting that Iran has nearly tripled its uranium stockpile while refusing inspectors access to two of its nuclear facilities. When the Ayatollah and his mullahs feel threatened by domestic unrest their focus turns outward.
Of course, the Middle East has become inured to a large Iranian footprint; Iran’s proxy wars and insurgencies have plagued countries like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen for years. But what the region has yet to see is the Iranian reaction when the regime feels under existential threat. And with a reelected Benjamin Netanyahu back in the Israeli saddle and Donald Trump’s reelection prospects improving steadily we might be on the verge of finding out.
Some of Iran’s expected countermeasures are known. A wave of cyberattacks began targeting U.S. government bodies and prominent Iranian-American dual nationals soon after the Obama administration negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015. Dual nationals are also frequently targeted within Iran, as evidenced by the cases of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, a U.S. national, and UK citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who remains imprisoned in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison despite numerous British government calls for her release.
The Iranian regime also has form when it comes to launching direct, if anonymous, attacks on its critics. Former Wall Street Journal reporter Jay Solomon blames the regime for the hack and leak of his communications with controversial Iranian-American businessman (and source) Farhad Azima, a leak that cost Solomon the position from which he had written critically about the Iranian regime’s sanctions-busting activities (a high-profile court case into the source of the Azima leak has recently concluded in the UK High Court).
The intensity of the Iranian regime’s activity will be closely correlated to the domestic pressure it is feeling. And with next year’s presidential elections set to produce an Ayatollah-friendly outcome that pressure is most likely to come from any floundering response to the coronavirus.
The early returns aren’t good. There is already a discrepancy between the information being reported by semi-official sources in the outbreak hotspot of Qom and the ruling clique in Tehran. Whether the death toll is actually 50, as sources in Qom claim, or the 12 claimed by Tehran, what’s clear is that the regime does not have a grip on its public health response. With the Iranian economy already labouring under U.S. sanctions, any further slowdown from a global coronavirus pandemic could be a severe, if not fatal, blow to the clerical regime.
The looming threat to the mullahs’ power should encourage the hardline elements of the regime to lean into the global response to the pandemic, if only to deflect criticism on the home front. Given the mistrust and uncooperative response to date, the Iranian people should instead brace themselves for more upset. The current regime seems to value its nuclear sabre more than it does the international cooperation that could be needed to save their lives.