The domestic concerns caused by the coronavirus have reduced the U.S. public’s already modest interest in foreign policy, but it has not distracted key architects of U.S. President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran from advocating for an even more muscular approach to the challenges posed by the Islamic Republic. In fact, with the advent of the pandemic, this camp—led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien—appears to view its efforts as all the more fruitful now that the Iranian regime has been weakened by a serious outbreak within its borders. Trump’s sanctions and the global pandemic have exacerbated the effects of Iran’s own incompetence and corruption, leading to significant discontent among the populace. Just weeks before the coronavirus became a household name around the world, Iranians were protesting their leadership. For Iran hawks in the Trump administration, these protests were a sign that maximum pressure was indeed yielding maximum results. Soon, the regime would be forced to change its behavior or collapse altogether—and either would be seen as a success.
Even before the pandemic, U.S.-Iran tensions were on the upswing. In December 2019, when the Iran-backed Iraqi militia Kataib Hezbollah conducted a rocket attack on U.S. forces in Iraq that killed a U.S. contractor, Americans were paying attention. News outlets covered the incident thoroughly. Just days later, the United States responded: Trump authorized the killing of one of Iran’s most important military figures, Major General Qassem Soleimani. His death in turn prompted Iran to retaliate, conducting missile attacks on two bases housing U.S. service members. These events made headlines and were covered extensively. But two months later, when the same militias launched rockets that killed two Americans, the United States was already facing the rapid spread of the coronavirus. This time, the news of the attack went virtually unnoticed by the general public.
Should Trump follow the advice of those pushing for ramping up pressure on Tehran (as he did when he made the decision to kill Soleimani), U.S.-Iran relations could further deteriorate—and deteriorate quickly—all while Americans continue to tune out foreign affairs.
For those hoping to deescalate tensions with Iran, a possibility lies in the course taken by the United States’ allies and partners. Because of their physical proximity to Iran, they cannot be flippant about the international public health crisis fueled by a poorly controlled epidemic in Iran. Amid the global pandemic and the Trump administration’s efforts to deter engagement with Tehran, the humanitarian trade channel known as the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges, established by France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, completed its first successful transaction on March 31. European countries whose nationals have been wrongfully detained by the Islamic Republic have increased their efforts to secure their release with some success. Even in the Middle East, some countries have placed their disagreements with Iran on the back burner to deal with a public health crisis that knows no borders.
These efforts may restrict U.S. options and help alleviate some of the challenges posed by Trump’s Iran policy—although they almost certainly will be limited in their impact. With the Trump administration having substituted obstructionism for U.S. leadership, little to no progress is likely on preexisting international concerns like the nuclear program, ballistic missiles, and regional activities. Tehran is likely to continue a reduced participation in the agreement’s implementation until November, when it will face one or the other potential U.S. administrations: a Democratic administration eager to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis or another four years of a Trump presidency.
Moreover, even as Europe seeks to diffuse tensions between the United States and Iran, the two principal players appear unwilling to change their trajectories. Even amid the coronavirus outbreak—which thus far in Iran has claimed more than 3,000 lives (at least by official accounts) and has endangered its neighbors—the United States imposed new sanctions on Iran. Meanwhile, Tehran believes that Washington is waging a “war by other means” (primarily economic means) against it, and it promises to leverage all means at its own disposal to counter the United States, including through a robust disinformation campaign blaming the United States for the coronavirus and efforts to drive U.S. forces out of Iraq using its proxies. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has not positioned the United States well to win either competition. The battle of narratives in particular is lost as many countries see the United States not as a leader in the response to the coronavirus but as an obstructionist force that is refusing to play a more positive role at home or abroad.
The upcoming months may see an even greater increase in U.S.-Iran tensions against the backdrop of the pandemic. As the U.S. presidential elections near, Iran may seek to bolster its position ahead of potential negotiations and to raise the cost for the maximum pressure campaign, thus forcing U.S. decisionmakers to dial the pressure down. Examples of actions Iran could take to strengthen its hand might well include items from the playbook the regime introduced in spring 2019 and carried on until the killing of Soleimani, such as attacks on oil facilities, shipping hubs, and other regional targets. The United States would then again face a number of unappealing options, especially as tensions are likely to continue to play out in the region writ large and now do so against the backdrop of the global pandemic.
Ariane M. Tabatabai is an adjunct senior research scholar at Columbia University and the author of the forthcoming book No Conquest, No Defeat: Iran's National Security Strategy.