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COVID-19 And Iranian Foreign And Security Policy: Stasis, Not Change

A photo published in Iranian Media shows the launch of Qased missile which according to IRGC's claim carried on Iran's first Military satellite, Nour. April 22, 2020

Leading up to and throughout the coronavirus crisis, the Islamic Republic of Iran has continued its policy of graduated escalation against its adversaries. Tehran’s underwriting of such activities while facing a pandemic at home is a measure of their ideational and strategic importance for the regime. This means that Iran’s five main threat vectors – nuclear, missile, maritime, cyber and regional – remain relatively unaffected by the onset of COVID-19 and will continue in the short-to-medium term.

On the nuclear front, in March, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) detailed Iran’s ongoing breaches of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). These violations include excess enrichment and accumulation of uranium. Iran now has enough uranium that – if enriched to weapons-grade – could be sufficient for one nuclear bomb. It has also prevented inspectors from accessing undisclosed facilities. Iran’s stockpile and other nuclear violations are set to grow this summer.

On the missile front, the regime went public this April with what was once a secret Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) space program, and launched a military satellite mounted on a three-stage satellite launch vehicle (SLV). The SLV’s functioning second-stage solid-propellant motor furthers the Islamic Republic’s longer-range missile capabilities and aspirations. According to the 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal, which is currently of short-to-medium range, is the biggest in the Middle East.

In the maritime domain, the Islamic Republic has been gearing up for another summer of escalation. Tehran has reportedly increased the range of its anti-ship cruise missiles and deployed rockets and anti-ship systems overlooking the narrow Strait of Hormuz. It has also stepped-up harassment and provocations against U.S. vessels – actions that had diminished during President Trump’s first year in office. In April of this year, 11 IRGC-Navy small boats harassed U.S. forces engaged in a military drill in the Persian Gulf. The harassment followed Iran’s decision to briefly detain an oil tanker that same month.

But perhaps most importantly, Tehran has not ceased using neighboring countries as a theater for furthering strategic competition against its adversaries.

In the cyber domain, the Islamic Republic continues to see cyber tools as useful ways to continue conflict with adversaries while limiting the prospects of overt and kinetic escalation. Recently, Iran attacked an Israeli water facility, which is critical infrastructure for the Jewish state. Israel is believed to have retaliated by a cyber-attack against an Iranian port.

But perhaps most importantly, Tehran has not ceased using neighboring countries as a theater for furthering strategic competition against its adversaries.

Prior to the onset of the coronavirus, Iran was stepping up material support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen. From November 2019 to February 2020, the U.S.-led maritime coalition intercepted two shipments of weapons heading from Iran to Yemen. In early February, a UN Panel of Experts on Yemen found that the weapons from the November interdiction were Iranian in origin. In March, the Houthis attempted to strike Riyadh – the first time since August 2019 – using a missile that likely came from Iran. Attempts by Saudi Arabia or the UN to midwife a ceasefire in the Arabian Peninsula or deal with intra-Yemeni issues will amount to naught if Tehran continues to pump weapons into the hands of rebels.

In Syria, reports of airstrikes – likely by Israel – against pro-Iran targets imply that the regime’s project of trafficking technology related to a precision guided munitions project is continuing. So, too, are efforts to establish warehouses, bases, and a land bridge connecting key routes to surge men and munitions to conflict zones across the region. Recently, an Iranian parliamentarian bemoaned the money his country had spent on propping up the Assad regime in Damascus, placing the figure at $20-$30 billion.

For the remainder of the year, the Islamic Republic can be expected to further embrace, rather than shun, the risks of confrontation with America.

In Iraq, despite the ongoing health crisis and political turbulence, pro-Iran Shiite militia groups launched at least two rocket attacks this month against the U.S. presence in that country. These strikes bring the total tally of rocket and mortar attacks against the U.S. in Iraq from May 2019 to the present to 45. While militias are facing financial and operational hardships, they remain at the forefront of Iran-backed efforts to evict American forces from Iraq, something Tehran has long hoped for as it continues to try to rope Baghdad deeper into its orbit.

If Washington or other international actors are hoping the coronavirus will induce Iran towards restraint abroad, data from the past few months should temper that expectation. Tehran has continued funding its revolutionary foreign policy, indicating that the country’s diminishing revenue streams are likely being diverted or used to support its malign activities. If Washington is hoping to change or reverse Iran’s gains abroad, it will need to double-down on existing economic tools, as well as explore non-economic tools of punishment, coercion, and deterrence.

The connective tissue and domestic engine behind between every single Iranian threat vector abroad is the IRGC. According to analysis of the latest Iranian budget, the IRGC’s payout is increasing. This means that more resources are being allocated toward a group spearheading confrontation at the exact same time that a global pandemic is raging.

Given what Tehran has been able to do abroad with increasingly limited resources, any attempt to put more resources in the hands of Iranian officials at this time – be it through diverted humanitarian aid or potentially even premature sanctions relief by the U.S. – will grow the lethality of Iran’s security policy.

For the remainder of the year, the Islamic Republic can be expected to further embrace, rather than shun, the risks of confrontation with America and its regional partners across the nuclear, missile, maritime, cyber, and regional domains. Hit hard by the coronavirus, Iran has been busy locking in, rather than rolling back, longstanding trends in its foreign policy.

The opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily the views of Radio Farda
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    Behnam Ben Taleblu

    Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington D.C., where he covers Iranian political and security issues.