Does pandemic offer US and Iran chance for partial reset?

Does pandemic offer US and Iran chance for partial reset?

We are facing a public health crisis that, in global terms, may be the worst for just over a century. No wonder then that the coronavirus pandemic has pushed many of the stories that make up our usual daily diet of international news to the sidelines. Nonetheless, many commentators are already speculating about how global affairs may or may not change in the wake of this drama. That, though, is a long way off yet. BBC reports in its article Does pandemic offer US and Iran chance for partial reset? that a more immediate question is whether the behaviour of antagonistic countries - Iran and the United States, in this case - as they both struggle to confront this emergency, might provide a glimmer of hope for a better relationship in the future?

The question is posed because Iran has been hit severely by the virus. The number of reported cases is already more than 17,000 and the death toll stands at 1,192, although many in Iran believe the actual numbers are a lot higher.

Iran's economy is already weakened by US sanctions and, although Washington insists that humanitarian items - medical supplies, for example - remain outside the sanctions net, the web of restrictions on the Central Bank of Iran and the country's ability to trade with the outside world are only accentuating its problems. Things have been made even more difficult by transport disruption, border closures and so on, prompted by the wider impact of the pandemic.

As a measure of Iran's desperate need, it has taken the almost unprecedented step of requesting a $5bn (£4.25bn) emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This is the first time for some 60 years that Iran has sought IMF funds. A spokesperson for the organisation told me on Tuesday that the IMF "had discussions with the Iranian authorities to better understand their request for emergency financing" and that "the discussions will continue in the days and weeks ahead".

The US, as one of the IMF Executive Board's most important members, will have a significant say in whether Iran gets the money. Already there are calls from US experts for Iran not just to be given what it needs, but also for the Trump administration to pursue a more compassionate approach to Iran's health crisis in general.

Mark Fitzpatrick, an expert on arms control and the Iranian nuclear programme, insisted that there was a moment now when an opportunity can be seized to break the log-jam. "US policy toward Iran is stuck, failing to change Iran's behaviour except for the worse," he tweeted on Monday.

Writing in the US journal The American Conservative on Tuesday, Iran specialist Barbara Slavin argued that the idea, espoused by some US Republicans, that the pandemic might serve to prompt the overthrow of the Iranian regime was absurd.

"The likelihood of massive protests… seems slim given government directives to stay home and rational fears that mass gatherings will only spread the virus," she wrote.

The US treasury department, she noted, had taken some small steps to clarify that the humanitarian channel to Iran remained open. But there had been no indications that the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" policy was being reconsidered, she added.

"It appears that the crisis will only push Iran deeper into the arms of China and Russia and strengthen those in the regime who reject reconciliation with the West."

"The Revolutionary Guards, who are handling much of the response to the virus and building emergency medical facilities," she insisted, "will grow even more powerful as Iran comes to look less and less like a theocracy with a thin republican veneer and more like a military dictatorship."