Covid-19, the Iranians, and Us

Just a few months ago, experts were predicting that the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran was falling prey to its own demons. Covid-19 cases were rising rapidly. The government lacked both the credibility and capacity to battle the novel coronavirus effectively. Close observers of Iran saw a crisis emerging that would force a renegotiation of the relationship between citizen and state. It was not much of a leap to judge that the 40-year shadow war between the United States and Iran was about to enter a very new phase as Iran reeled from the pressure of the pandemic.

While the Islamic Republic has shuddered, it has not fallen. In that, perhaps, is a lesson on the difficulty of predicting politics, especially in authoritarian states. Politics in Iran follow their own course and their own timelines, and pressures may yet be building that are hard to see. But at the same time, it is hard to deny that the coronavirus pandemic has shaken the standing of Iran’s perennial antagonist, the United States. The economic and political turmoil it has unleashed, the harm it has caused to U.S. credibility, and the way it has distracted Americans from considering how they might think about their country’s global role has created opportunities for Iran, for China, and for other states that seek to alter the global status quo.

While Iran’s virus response has been disastrous, the U.S. response has been even more so. There is likely some incompleteness in Iran’s tallies, but even so, the United States appears to be much worse off. According to Johns Hopkins University, Iran has had 17 deaths per 100,000 population, while the United States has had almost 43. Iran has had 337 reported infections per 100,000 people, while the United States has had 1,160. The disparities are growing as the Iranian curve flattens out while the U.S. curve steepens.

Many Americans seem to feel inconvenienced but undaunted by the rising toll. As pressure builds to reopen despite a growing caseload, we should expect to see the pandemic having a growing impact on the U.S. economy and an indirect impact on government funding at the national, state, and local level. Rising medical costs will be borne broadly, and economic relief for the newly unemployed and underemployed will continue to draw on the public purse. Benefits for the out of work will put further pressure on U.S. discretionary spending, and the U.S. military will not be spared.

Politicization of the pandemic amid a presidential campaign has polarized Americans even further, and it has exacerbated tensions between national, state, and local governments. Those tensions are likely to grow as state and local tax receipts shrink, and the resources available for public services plummet. Trust in the federal government has been on a steady march downward since the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and even before the coronavirus hit it stood at 17 percent. In the 1990s it had crept up with a strengthening economy, but most economists and business leaders think U.S. economic growth will be uneven for some time. Put simply, we are likely to see a lot of domestic finger-pointing in our future.

The finger-pointing on the international stage is less about blame and more about incredulity. Governments around the world are used to deferring to the United States for the resources it can bring to bear, for its technical skills, and for its organizational capacity. The U.S. government’s failure to rally its own state and local governments to coordinated approaches, and the resultant high death toll, is a signal to many that U.S. government effectiveness may have reached an inflection point and is headed downward. While that encourages U.S. adversaries, it is even more disturbing to U.S. partners. With the United States as a variable and not a constant, they are facing a messier and more dangerous world. They will need to hedge against a future U.S. failure, and many will seek greater accommodation with U.S. adversaries.

And while it is true those adversaries are struggling with their own coronavirus problems, a weakened United States opens up the playing field for them. The Cold War focused Americans on a symmetrical competition between two nations with opposing ideologies fighting a zero-sum game. The contest is different now. Ideology is all but dead in international affairs, and what we see instead is adversaries pursuing a ruthlessly innovative asymmetrical competition for marginal advantage.

Khrushchev famously told Western diplomats in 1956, “We will bury you.” It provoked an obvious response. Roughly simultaneously, China adopted the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, which have continued to be a soothing mantra underlying what has become an increasingly assertive Chinese foreign policy. China does not seek to defeat the United States ideologically, militarily, or any other way. What it seeks, instead, is greater freedom to pursue its own interests single-mindedly, irrespective of the effects of those interests on the United States. China’s actions in the South China Sea, on the Indian border, and in Central Asia are a foretaste of what is to come. China’s deepening ties in the Mediterranean, and its increasing insistence that its interests be advanced there, further signals the scope of Chinese ambitions.

China’s reported pursuit of closer ties with Iran in recent months is another example. The effort advances China’s and Iran’s interests simultaneously. China shows its defiance of the United States, and it locks in market access that the United States is unlikely to be able to sway. With Iran so isolated and arguably so desperate, and a Chinese economy that is almost 20 times the size of Iran’s, China has a tremendous advantage in that relationship. For Iran, Chinese ties are both an escape hatch from sanctions and a shield against U.S. aggression. Iran has no allies in the world—nor does China, for that matter—but they have common cause in their desire to limit U.S. power.

The unique value proposition of the system that the United States helped establish after World War II was that there was a system at all. Lubricated by U.S. competence and commitment, like-minded governments could band together in coordinated efforts to address big problems. That the U.S. government could underperform a country like Iran fighting the coronavirus pandemic will take a bite out of U.S. prestige. But it will also drive partners to consider the very real possibility of what the world might look like without an outsized U.S. role. Most of them will want to do what they can to bring that role back. They do not want to face the world alone. That is an opportunity for whomever wins the presidential election in November, and he should seize it.

Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program