Hudson Institute senior fellow Michael Doran doesn’t foresee any changes, at least until after the U.S. presidential elections in November, saying “until then, we are frozen in place.”
The Iranian people’s trust in its government is at an all-time low. When Iranian forces shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane in January, the regime lied in an attempt to cover it up. Then, when the coronavirus first made its appearance in Iran, again the regime lied. Now, Iran has the highest coronavirus death toll in the region, and the regime continues to lie about the numbers of those infected and the fatalities, while imprisoning dissenters.
Will the regime’s continued lies and neglect of its own people lead to unrest?
The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) conducted an online conversation to discuss Iran as the epicenter of the coronavirus in the Middle East and its efforts to continue its nuclear activities. Indeed, according to Maysam Behravesh, in a recent article in Foreign Policy, “It’s indisputable that Iran … is one of the pandemic’s epicenters.”
Michael Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, said he believes that the coronavirus could create the foundations for popular unrest and regime change in Iran.
Segall explained that with the backdrop of sanctions and lack of income from oil, together with internal feuds within the regime, the crisis in Iran is deepening.
“Last year was a tough year for Iran,” he said. “They were unable to recover from one crisis, and now they find themselves in another crisis. The coming year will be a crossroad for the regime.”
‘Khamenei doesn’t care about how many people die’
However, according to former Iranian Housing Minister Djavad Khadem, regime change in Iran is not possible “because the regime has the support of its base, and this base will take whatever measures necessary to prevent that from happening.”
Adding to the notion that Iran’s leaders are lying, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of spreading conspiracy theories, alleging that the United States is responsible for creating the virus and infecting the world.
But the people of Iran see through the regime’s lies.
“People have given up on the regime and mistrust it,” said Khadem. “Khamenei can only be saved by his base, not the general population.”
According to Khadem, Khamenei also “has an inferiority complex” regarding his predecessor, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei.
“Khomenei was always against the idea of giving up Iraq and giving in to America. So Khamenei’s thinking is, ‘If I resist America, I go down as a bigger man than Khomenei.’ ”
“He doesn’t care how many people die,” said Khadem, “because this is the best way to divert attention from the other problems in Iran. He sees them as martyrs. His aim is to resist American pressure at all costs.”
Khadem also believes that U.S. sanctions will not bring Iran to its knees because the current situation forces the Iranian people into submission and prevents them from protesting. “The Iranian people will not go out into the street unless they are sure they have food for six months,” he said.
“This is the fundamental problem that Americans do not understand,” he explained. “You cannot bring hungry people into the streets. History has shown when you are down, you are quiet. When you are strong, you are up. As long as the sanctions and pressure continue, there is no chance the people will protest.”
Hudson Institute senior fellow Michael Doran offered his perspective from the U.S. point of view, and said that for U.S. President Donald Trump, the Nov. 3 presidential elections are crucial in defining his options.
“Trump doesn’t want to take any step that can be painted by his opponents, especially during the election season, as a step that will lead to war,” said Doran. “The Iranians understand this.”
He pointed out that Khamenei escalated the situation through proxies on the military front, while aggressively working with the Europeans and American Democrats to present Trump’s policies as a march to war.
“Now, the Iranians are using the coronavirus crisis to launch a new information campaign against the U.S. administration’s policy,” said
‘There is a need to contain China’
As a case in point, Pompeo recently posted a video showing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani saying that the purpose of Iran’s public-relations campaign to end U.S. sanctions due to the coronavirus pandemic is really about enriching the regime.
Doran also stated that Israel and America must work to expose the connection between China and Iran.
“There is a need to contain China and to highlight the Chinese-Iranian relationship, and use the coronavirus crisis as a way of harming that relationship,” he said. “Anything we can do to put pressure on those channels would be really good.”
For now, Doran said the Trump administration does not appear to have any inclination to heed the Iranian call for sanctions relief, saying “the tool which they see as most successful is this ‘maximum pressure’ economic tool, combined with a certain amount of deterrence.”
Doran doesn’t foresee any changes, at least until after the U.S. elections. “Until then, we are frozen in place,” he said.
Yossi Kuperwasser, former head of the IDF Intelligence Directorate’s Research Division and now a senior scholar at the JCPA, agreed with Khadem that Iran doesn’t care about its people, adding that the regime demonstrated this by placing more emphasis on maintaining good relations with China than on taking care of the Iranian people.
Kuperwasser ended the conversation by adding that Israel wants to see more pressure on Iran, and is “fully behind what Trump is doing right now.”
According to him, Iran will consider several options, including going nuclear, if it feels it has no way out.
“Everyone is worried, but no one does anything about it,” said Kuperwasser. “The IAEA, the Europeans, the Americans are furious, Israel is shouting, but no one is doing anything about it.”
“This is dangerous,” he warned, saying if Iran perceives itself as being backed into a corner and sees no one is ready to fight, it may make a dash for the bomb.
“If they manage to get to this endpoint,” he added, “it is a game-changer.”