At the turn of the twenty first century Ulrich Beck, a renowned German sociologist, in a book titled World Risk Society described the new geopolitical condition in which the techno-scientific modernity to which we attribute our progress and security could also threaten us with infrastructure vulnerabilities, systemic failures, environmental degradation and a range of potential catastrophes. Though Beck was warning about proliferation of ‘global dangers’ in the era of advanced modernity and globalisation that cannot be controlled and contained by national security institutions, the current crisis of ‘borderless’ pandemic has brought to the fore the limits of both state-centric response strategies and global cooperative efforts. The continued confrontation between United States (US) and Iran in Iraq, the divide between the European Union and the US over sanctions on Iran, and Iran’s increasing reliance on Russia indicate the persistence of geopolitical inertia with few efforts to forge a united response to the global pandemic. The historic output cut agreement reached on April 12 by the OPEC-plus in a bid to support the plummeting crude oil prices and the positive Iranian response to the Saudi announcement of ceasefire in Yemen indicate a certain reversal of brinkmanship strategies in times of crisis. However, both these agreements remain fragile and on-going in nature, and will not have desired results without sustained cooperation between conflicting parties.
No Signs of Easing of the US-Iran Tensions
The understanding that the effectiveness of disease response at both national and global level is contingent upon wider political and economic development was reflected in the appeal issued by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in late March for an “immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world.” Following Guterres’s appeal, Iran reached out to the global body denouncing the US sanctions as a major obstacle to country’s efforts, leading to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights calling for easing of sanctions against countries such as Iran to allow their medical systems to fight the disease and limit its global spread. But as rocket attacks on the Iraqi bases housing US troops continued, Washington imposed fresh sanctions and deployed the Patriot Air Defense missiles to Iraq. Iran denounced the deployment as running “counter to the official position of the Iraqi government, parliament and people and demanded halt to “warmongering during coronavirus outbreak”.
The US has also sought to block Iran’s request for an emergency loan via the International Monetary Fund’s (IMFs) Rapid Financing Instrument, which covers the urgent needs of the member state without having to implement a full-fledged reform program. Though EU backed the request of both Iran and Venezuela given both “these countries are in a very difficult situation that prevents them from having income by selling their oil”, Trump administration has maintained that access to funds will allow Tehran to help its economy or finance militants in the region, and as such runs counter to the objectives of Washington’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign. As IMF delays disbursement of funds, President Rouhani called on the Fund to “fulfil its responsibilities in these hard times”, and accused Washington of economic and medical terrorism against Iran.
While Washington refuses to relent on its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign on Iran, the EU-3 that is the UK, Germany and France carried out the first transaction via the Instrument in Support of Trade and Exchanges (INSTEX) exporting medical devices to Iran. EU’s transfer of medical equipment to Iran at a time when it is dealing with a major outbreak on the continent and had limited the exports of these equipment outside the bloc underlines the continued divergence between Washington and Brussels, the latter adopting a nuanced policy towards Iran. Iran described the EU’s gesture as “positive but insufficient”, urging that the sanction bypassing mechanism should be expanded beyond medical and food commodities. Russia backed Iranian position that to realise its full potential, INSTEX should be made open to the participation of countries which are not member of the EU and should service trading in Iranian oil. At a time when Moscow is seeking an active role in managing the pandemic in the Middle East and the Post-Soviet space with an eye to strengthen its international leadership credentials, Iran is working closely with Russia. For instance, the Russian proposal for “green corridor” that is cutting import duties to zero on medicine, medical equipment and other essential goods was quickly welcomed by the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who also contrasted the Russian proposal with the US “economic war and sanctions” on Iran and Russia.
A Tale of Two Agreements
In a rare instance of concerted action in times of crisis, the US President Trump pressed Saudi Arabia to cut crude output and reached out to Moscow to start talks for an output cut agreement to lift the oil prices, which had been declining since the collapse of OPEC-plus talks in early March hitting the 18-year low as the world oil demand slumped in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. The April 12 ministerial meeting between OPEC-plus and the G-20 nations resulted in the biggest ever oil-cut amounting to 9.7 million barrels a day, about 10 per cent of global supply. The US brokering was driven by domestic pressures to protect the shale oil industry, which operates on high production costs and was seriously threatened by low oil prices. Iranian oil minister Bijan Zanganeh, who had participated in the webinar, later argued that Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE would cut another 2 million barrels of oil per day (bpd) between them. Under the impact of US sanctions, Iran’s oil production has dropped to below 2 million bpd.
More than two weeks after UN Secretary General’s global appeal to cease conflicts, on March 9, the Saudi-led coalition announced a unilateral ceasefire with the aim to facilitate talks sponsored by the UN special envoy Martin Griffiths on permanent ceasefire and resumption of political process to comprehensively end the war. Iran’s backing of the UN efforts to conserve the ceasefire indicates that the momentum of confidence building between Iran and the UAE amid coronavirus crisis – UAE sent two tranches of medical assistance to Iran in March after phone calls between foreign ministers of the two countries – can result in cooperative efforts to stabilise Yemen ceasefire.
Iran’s Regional Overtures
A major concern for Iran amid the coronavirus crisis has been to manage the fallout on its position of a key regional transit hub. As countries closes borders to prevent the geographic spread of infection, Iran is reaching out to its neighbours with proposals of experience-sharing and the necessary health measures Iran is taking to continue transit cooperation amid disease outbreak. In this context, cooperation with Turkey, which relies on Iranian transit routes to reach Central Asia, and with Armenia and Azerbaijan, which provide Iran transit to Russia, while Iran gives them access to the Persian Gulf, has assumed added significance. As the cases of infection rose substantially in the neighbouring Turkey, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif called up his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, voicing Iran’s readiness for assistance and cooperation and the necessity of bilateral cooperation in transportation and transit of goods. Major General Mohammad Hossein Beqeri, the Chief of Staff of Iranian Armed Forces reached out to Turkish Minister of Defence Hulusi Akar, saying that Iranian Armed Forces were ready to share their experiences in the battle with COVID-19 with the military forces of Turkey and other countries. Both Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and regular Armed Forces have carried out a number of nation-wide ‘biological defence drills’ namely disinfection operations, controlling city entrances, establishing convalescent centres and field hospitals According to the Iranian media, a coronavirus test kit developed by Industrial Research Department of Iran’s Armed Forces went into mass production in early April. Iran is keen on exporting its domestically developed kits to neighbouring countries.
From mid-March, when Iran recorded third highest death rate worldwide with the highest single day death toll reaching 149 on March 19, the rate of new deaths per day since the beginning of April has hovered below 120. In order to strike a balance between restrictive measures necessary for curbing the spread of virus and resuming the economic activities, Iran’s Health Ministry has devised 98 health protocols or ‘smart social distancing’ for 12,000 occupations which resumed operations from April 12.
Iran’s experience amid the coronavirus crisis has underlined the sobering reality that global efforts are shaped by countries continuing insistence on realising their respective foreign policy goals rather than genuine global solidarity to deal with a borderless pandemic. Notwithstanding Iran’s push for regional cooperation, the real test for Tehran would be in Yemen, as to whether it would be willing to use its leverage to reign in Houthis (Ansarallah) at a time when its confrontation with the US in Iraq continues apace.
Iran’s experience during the Iran-Iraq war when Iran found itself without major allies and faced international silence over Iraq’s targeting of civilians and massive use of chemical weapons had the effect of strengthening Tehran’s suspicion of international institutions and laws and giving force to the idea that Iran must be self-reliant in providing for its security. The US refusal to ease sanctions and use its influence at the IMF against Iran when the pandemic is exacting a heavy death toll on Iran will strengthen the position of hardliners who see the US as viscerally hostile to the Islamic Republic. Also, the inability of the West to provide global leadership in times of the crisis, Europe’s protracted struggle to contain the high incidence of coronavirus infections and the US withdrawal of funding to the World Health Organisation will give further force to the emerging Iranian-Russian narrative of post-West world order questioning the primacy of the West in shaping normative and institutional structures at the international level.
*Dr. Deepika Saraswat, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.
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