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Coronavirus has Frozen the World in Time

Somewhere, presumably from the comfort of a plush home office, a judge named Lenon is putting the finishing touches on his judgment in the case of Ras Al-Khaimah vs. Farhad Azima. His Lordship Lenon’s verdict was expected toward the end of March but that, like most things, is now presumably on hold, suspended somewhere in the deep freeze of coronavirus.

The case feels like a distant memory from another era, even for someone who’s research and reporting on Iran led him into a near obsession over this most bizarre dispute between a minor Emirate and rumoured arms dealer. With the world now fighting a deep recession and a possible depression of 1930s proportions, a dust-up over a few million pounds no longer rates.

This isn’t to say the cast of characters involved in the Azima case have slowed to a dead stop. Just this week the Sheraton Grand Tbilisi Metechi Palace Hotel – a key setting and bargaining chip in the Azima-RAK saga (and still owned by the Emirate) – announced it was donating its facilities to the Georgian government in the fight against COVID-19. Although Georgia does not share a land border with hard-hit Iran, the country has strong business and trade links with the Islamic Republic, along with a healthy commercial relationship with China, the original source of the outbreak. There are now 81 reported cases in the Republic of Georgia.

Meanwhile, the situation in Iran remains dire. Leaders there have now had to announce a ban on internal travel to help slow the spread of the deadly virus, with the official death toll now at 2,234, with many more expected owing to the regime’s lack of access to funds and medicine. Whatever adventurism or cyberattacks the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps had planned have now been put on the back burner.

Then again, a foreign frolic or two might just be what the doctor orders, given the attitude and response of the Iranian leadership is now coming under fire. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is reportedly refusing foreign assistance, believing the virus is an American-made creation. “I do not know how real (the American) accusation is but when it exists, who in their right mind would trust (America) to bring them medication?” Khamenei said. “Possibly (America’s) medicine is a way to spread the virus more.” That the United States of America is now the world-leader in COVID-19 cases appears to have gone unnoticed in Tehran.

Confronted with such stunning ignorance, ordinary Iranians can be forgiven for any panic. And with incomes and access to relief already stretched, it wouldn’t take much more stress to launch a period of pronounced instability on Iranian streets. And with Iran’s focus turned inward – and the rest of the world taking care of their back gardens – it also wouldn’t be a surprise to see a sworn enemy like Israel take a shot at crippling the Iranian regime if things get out of hand domestically. It might even be the tonic that propels Benjamin Netanyahu back into pole position in his long-running battle with rival Benny Gantz.

The sheer breadth, depth, and volume of the domestic implications of the coronavirus have largely obscured the possibilities for such state-backed efforts to create political instability. How long will we have to wait before a nation uses coronavirus as an excuse to, for example, exercise a Putin-like grab on adjacent territory? Let’s hope we don’t find out.

But with governments struggling to keep restive populations calm in the face of imploding domestic health care regimes, it doesn’t take much imagination to see how a struggling despot or demagogue might lash out, with horrific implications.

Such dystopian nightmares are enough to make one pine for the solitude of a UK court, and the calm tones of a British judge administering the world’s gold-standard injustice. I miss Farhad Azima. I miss Ras Al-Khaimah. I miss their QC’s and I miss the supporting cast of characters like Ray Adams, Kirby Behre, and Afsaneh Azadeh.

And while I miss them, let us also hold a thought for those in this peculiar saga with friends and relatives in places like Iran, where the healthcare system will be struggling to cope with what’s coming. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.