While much of the world has ground to a halt amid the sweeping scourge of the coronavirus, another round of escalation has erupted between Tehran and Washington out of view of the public eye. Once again, Tehran directed its proxy forces in Iraq to strike American forces in the anti-ISIS coalition. And once again, they met strong American retaliation. Meanwhile, coronavirus is sweeping across Iran, with numerous sources indicating the true toll of the illness could be anywhere from two to five times greater than official numbers suggest.
ONE WEEK, TWO ROUNDS OF ESCALATION
Within the space of one week, Tehran’s proxy forces initiated two rounds of combat with Coalition forces in Iraq. The first came on March 11, when three Coalition troops were killed in a rocket attack on Iraq’s Camp Taji base. That day, an OIR spokesman confirmed that “more than 15 small rockets impacted Iraq’s Camp Taji base hosting Coalition troops” and announced that Coalition forces were investigating the identity of the perpetrators. Soon afterward, Secretary Pompeo issued a stern warning of what was to come, tweeting that “Today’s deadly attack on Iraq’s Camp Taji military base will not be tolerated. [UK Foreign Secretary] Dominic Raab and I agree – those responsible must be held accountable.”
Pompeo’s remarks presaged an American reprisal targeting Kataib Hizballah, the Iran-directed militia responsible for the attack. On March 13, CENTCOM confirmed a series of airstrikes targeting five Kataib Hizballah bases across Iraq in a statement, saying, “We have effectively destroyed these facilities and expect that they no longer contain the type of advanced Iranian-supplied weapons that were used in the K[ataib] H[izballah] attacks.”
Despite having suffered several losses to no clear purpose, Iran directed its proxies to strike American forces a second time in the same week. And so on March 14, Kataib Hizballah wounded three American troops and several Iraqi soldiers in a second major rocket attack targeting Camp Taji, north of Baghdad. Somewhat unusually, both American Secretaries of State and Defense addressed the attack immediately, with Defense Secretary Esper promisingto “take any action necessary to protect our forces” while Pompeo declared, These actions will not be tolerated and the groups responsible must be held accountable by the Government of Iraq.”
CASCADING STRESS AT HOME
While Tehran’s foreign policy seemingly continues on auto-pilot, the stresses of an uncontrolled coronavirus outbreak and the looming threat of complete economic collapse bode ill for Iran’s regional project. Authorities have largely given up efforts to downplay the crisis, and now acknowledge “millions” of Iranians could soon be infected. Dr Afruz Eslami, an employee of Iranian State television, warned that if the public fails to follow government guidance on quarantining and social distancing, the exponential spread of the disease could crush Iran's already-strained medical system. If the "medical facilities are not sufficient, there will be four million cases, and 3.5 million people will die," she said.
As of this moment, unofficial sources indicate that over 32,000 Iranians have been hospitalized for the virus and over 1,300 have died, roughly double the official numbers. Meanwhile, satellite images published earlier this week indicate that authorities have begun digging mass graves in Qom, widely believed to be the center of the outbreak in Iran. Dr. Rick Brennan, a senior official with the WHO, recently stated, "The number of cases reported could represent only about a fifth of the real numbers. The reason was that testing, as is the case even in some wealthy European countries, was restricted to severe cases." As in the rest of the international community, Iran’s saga with the coronavirus is far from over. While much remains unclear, if the virus continues its unconstrained spread in Iran, it is all but certain to dwarf all other policy considerations for Tehran.