Photo Credit: JHU Resource
Middle East Cumulative Confirmed Coronavirus Cases

{Originally posted to the JCPA website}

The corona epidemic is paralyzing the whole world, together with most of the Middle East. Except for Iran, where the number of those infected and dead is very high, the rest of the states in the region are reporting a relatively low number of infected and dead (these reports are not considered reliable). However, most have taken different degrees of steps to protect themselves. In those places where there is civil war (Syria, Yemen, Libya and Sinai), their attention is focused on the war and corona is secondary on their agenda.

Immediate Regional Consequences of the Coronavirus Crisis

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An additional significant and direct consequence of the crisis on the region is the steep drop in oil prices and, although recovered a bit, they are still at a very low level. In relation to this, the damage to Iran is especially severe as its foreign currency reserves are lower than other oil exporters, its needs are greater, and it suffers from American sanctions which are getting harsher.

Some additional consequences worthy of note at this stage are:

  1. Even though at this stage the damage done to the Palestinians by the coronavirus is limited (according to official reports), the Palestinian issue has been pushed completely aside. The focus on the U.S. peace plan is frozen, both because of corona and also because of the political situation in Israel. In addition, the epidemic has forced the Palestinians to cooperate with Israel in dealing with it. A joint operations room has been established. Steps were taken to allow vital Palestinian workers, including those in construction, to continue to work in Israel and in Israeli towns in the West Bank, as the PA imposed a closure.

    Parallel to this, there has been a huge drop in Palestinian activity against Israel, especially from Gaza, that began with understandings that had been reached prior to the crisis, but whose implementation by Hamas now appears more likely, as long as the corona situation in Gaza does not get dire and the Qatari funds keep coming.

    The Palestinian Authority tried to take advantage of Israeli goodwill by requesting money being held by Israel, according to the law requiring the deduction of payments to the PA in response to its payment of salaries of terrorists. Israel responded to the request in the negative.

  2. Together with this, certain Palestinians are leading delegitimization campaigns against Israel. In spite of Israel looking out for the Palestinians, they are portraying Israel as if it is trying to harm them. They are spreading lies that Palestinian prisoners are being infected by or exposed to corona (even the PA has denied this as false) and are demanding their release, and spreading blood libels as if Israel and the U.S. are responsible for corona.
  3. In Iraq and Lebanon, corona has removed the popular protest against Iran from the main agenda, even though many believe that the spread of the disease to these states began with Iran, which didn’t take the necessary timely steps to stop the spread of the disease from the religious center of Qom, through the Revolutionary Guards, to certain Shiites from Iraq and Lebanon who are closest to Iran (though it is hard to ascertain the veracity of this claim).
  4. Also, international terror, which ideologically originates in the Middle East, seems to be frozen for the time being, mainly because travel limitations make it more difficult to implement terror attacks.
  5. Beneath the smokescreen of the epidemic, the U.S. is proceeding to implement its plans to limit its presence and the deployment of its forces in the region, especially in Iraq. Within this framework, the Americans have limited their presence on a number of bases close to the Iraq-Syria border. In general, this step could make it easier for Iran and its allies to use the Al-Qa’im-Abu Kamal border crossing for the purpose of moving troops and military materiel to Syria and to Hizbullah. Russia, which is influenced less from corona and more from the drop in oil prices as a result of a dispute with Saudi Arabia, is taking advantage of the lack of attention in order to strengthen the Assad regime at the expense of Turkey.

The Impact on Iran

Iran is the arena getting the most attention. The inability of the regime to respond effectively to the crisis has brought it to a low point in its standing at home and in the region. This comes against the background of the increasing cost of the American sanctions, the implementation of financial sanctions by the international Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the consequences of the elimination of Quds Force commander Gen. Soleimani and the limited reaction to it, the embarrassment of the downing of the Ukrainian plane, and the memory of the November 2019 demonstrations after the increase in gas prices. As if all this was not enough, corona has infected a number of Iranian officials and has also weakened the regime’s standing.

Many in Iran believe that the dangerous reality of corona is the result of the problematic conduct of the regime (not stopping flights from China in time, not closing the educational institutions, the neglect of the health system). The regime is trying to leverage the occasion to create solidarity among the Iranian people which will enable it to moderate the criticism directed against the leadership. To do this it is striving to convince the public that it is not responsible for their distress and at the same time convince the U.S. and the international community to come to their aid. Along this line, Iran is acting in a number of directions:

  1. Blaming the U.S. and the sanctions against Iran. The Iranians claim that the sanctions prevent them from acquiring medications and medical equipment. The U.S. denies these false claims, but the regime continues in its efforts to sell them to the public and the international community. At the same time, Washington is offering medical help but Iran refuses to accept it.
  2. Presenting their investment in the strengthening of their regional standing and support for terrorist elements as useful in the fight against corona. Thus, the Iranians showed Hizbullah members from Lebanon disinfecting the streets of Qom, as directed by Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the organization. All this is in reaction to the American claim that the regime prefers to invest in helping terrorist elements instead of using its money to improve the Iranian medical system.
  3. Promoting actions against the U.S. in Iraq through allies there. The killing of two American soldiers and a British soldier brought about a strong American reaction against the bases of one of the pro-Iranian militias (Kataib Hezbollah), which resulted also in the killing of several Iranians.
  4. Turning to the International Monetary Fund to request $5 billion in aid. Reasonably, the U.S. will agree to give medical equipment and aid but not money.
  5. On the other hand, Iran freed an American prisoner for medical reasons and handed over a French prisoner in order to free an Iranian who was jailed in France and was going to be handed over to the U.S. This was done, of course, in the hope to prepare the ground for Washington and Paris to be willing to agree to Iran’s requests.

World Responses to Iran

So far, the U.S. has denied Iran’s requests, especially since in the meantime Iran has increased its enrichment rate of uranium beyond what is allowed according to the nuclear agreement. Moreover, Iran is not allowing the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to suspicious sites that the organization asked to check as a result of information that arose from the nuclear archives that Israel brought out of Tehran two years ago. (Moreover, the activity of the inspectors has been reduced due to the spread of corona in Iran).

In the meantime, the U.S. at this time is holding back from taking far-reaching action against Iran, particularly the option of requesting the Security Council’s implementation of the “snapback” sanctions provisions, the significance of which is the cancellation of the nuclear deal. Also, the Europeans (Britain, France and Germany), who are now busy dealing with corona, are holding back from taking measures against Iran, following their activation of the dispute resolution mechanism in the nuclear agreement after IAEA reports on Iranian actions. It seems that the U.S. is not interested in appearing like someone taking advantage of the crisis and that, from the beginning, the Europeans had no intention of pressuring Iran.

For Regional Conflicts, This Is Just a Time-Out

In any case, at this time, dealing with corona has not brought any change in the camps which make up the region and are fighting over the extent of their control and over regional hegemony. They include the radical Shiite axis led by Iran; the pragmatic Sunni camp in which Saudi Arabia plays a central role; the realistic radical Sunni camp led by Turkey, Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood; and the ultra-radical Sunni camp led by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

Except for the danger that the epidemic can create for the stability of the Iranian regime, it does not look like it will lead to a regional change. The potential for this happening could occur in the future if the epidemic widens and especially if some of the leaders are infected by corona (some are in the endangered group).

Moreover, all of the parties are maintaining their worldviews and are not showing any tendency to compromise in light of the epidemic and the need for everyone to fight together against the threat that nature has created. Even though in the West one hears voices like this, even if their weight is very limited, in the Middle East, against the background of the corona pandemic, there is no attempt to bring up new ideas and it is considered a period of time-out, whose extent is not known, until every party renews its striving towards its aims.

The International  Impact

Unlike the Middle East, in the international arena there is a serious potential for greater change in a number of directions that may impact on Israel:

  1. The enormous economic damage and the blow to the idea of globalization as an organizing principle of the international system may deepen the responsibility of each country to deal by itself with the virus and later with the need for economic revival, that will likely take time.
  2. The crisis has highlighted the clear lack of international leadership. The UN and its institutions, and the leadership in the U.S., Russia, and China, did not even attempt to seek such a stance. The EU, as well, played no part and left each state to depend on its own resources to deal with the virus and its consequences.
  3. The standing of U.S. President Trump was harmed because of the complacency that he displayed at the beginning of the fight against the virus and because of the massive damage to the American economy. The presidential election, that seemed to be favoring Trump, now seems to be wide open as it appears that opposing Trump will be Joe Biden, who represents an outlook more acceptable to middle America than his opponent for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders.
  4. Relations between the U.S and China, which prior to the crisis were problematic but were being dealt with in the framework of commercial talks and were characterized by a degree of trust between the leaders of the two countries, have been seriously harmed and are now characterized by growing tension. This is due to a growing American feeling that the situation report that it received from China regarding the strength of the epidemic was intentionally erroneous and resulted in serious damage to Americans and to President Trump, while China is recovering before everyone else from the epidemic and is returning to normal in stages.

Possible Impact on Israel

The implications for Israel derived from the pandemic will be influenced by the continuation of the crisis, the intensity of the damage to life, and the extent of the economic damage in Israel, in the region, and in the international system, all of which are unmeasurable and unpredictable for now:

  1. At this point, the chances of a major change in relations between Israel and other active players in the Middle East are low. Cooperation in the fight against the coronavirus with the camp of pragmatic Sunni states may speed up the process of normalization in the future, but in the Palestinian realm, even if there is an increase in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority stemming from a joint interest in the fight against the virus, it is doubtful if this will have any impact on Palestinian positions regarding the conflict. It is likely that the Palestinians will try to take advantage of Trump’s possible difficulties to increase their efforts to remove the U.S. peace plan from the agenda.
  2. As long as there is no serious change in the death rate in Gaza or the Palestinian Authority, the scope of Palestinian violence and terror is not expected to change. A widespread outbreak of the virus, particularly in Gaza, and delays in the transfer of financial aid from Qatar to Gaza, could lead to the government there to seek to direct the public’s anger toward Israel and, as a result, the extent of the violence could increase.
  3. The Iranian regime, as noted, has reason to be seriously worried, at this point, from the implications of the virus. If they fail in their efforts to take advantage of the crisis to reduce the international pressure and to create internal public unity in support of steps to fight the coronavirus, this is likely to increase the regime’s focus on achieving the ability to produce nuclear weapons and to renew its efforts to harm the U.S. and its allies, including Israel, in order to improve the chances of the success of its policies.

    Evidence of this can already be seen in Iran’s increased efforts to produce enriched uranium, its increased actions against the U.S. in Iraq, and in its thwarted attempts to attack Israel from the Golan Heights using Hizbullah. Israel must continue its vigilance and preparedness in order to thwart additional attacks. If the efforts of the regime fail, it may happen that at some point public protest in Iran, which has been dampened in part by fears of contagion, may reawaken, which would result in greater danger to the regime’s stability.

    The possibility of beginning negotiations with the U.S. on a new nuclear agreement from the point of weakness in which the regime currently finds itself is not on the agenda. Yet if it becomes clear to the regime that all other avenues of action have failed and public anger threatens to explode, it may have no choice but to consider even this possibility.

  4. Harm to the core of the senior leadership could lead to instability, whose characteristics are difficult to predict at this time, in nearly all of the states in the region.
  5. Developments in the international order, in general, and in the U.S., in particular, may present Israel with new and more complex challenges as they deal with the virus and its aftermath. With the growing tension between China and the U.S. and fears of the weakening of Trump’s standing ahead of the November elections, if the U.S. fails in dealing successfully with the epidemic, this will require Israel to display greater sensitivity to the possible implications for international and American support for Israel. One of the clear ways to deal with these implications is for Israel to invest in the advancement of responses to the virus and to thereby expedite its contribution as a center of scientific research to the security of the West and the U.S.
  6. Finally, the unprecedented economic implications, and the diplomatic implications, are likely to complicate Israel’s ability to provide for the full needs of its security services. The enlistment of Israel’s security and intelligence services to assist in the national effort against the coronavirus is essential and important, and illustrates the priorities that need to be set, particularly in a country that must face continuing threats. But the coronavirus epidemic will require a long-term shifting of greater resources to the field of health. The question that arises is: What is the correct balance and what level of preparedness is necessary to deal with such epidemics?

(Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is Director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center. He was formerly Director General of the Israel Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the Research Division of IDF Military Intelligence)

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