As Iran contends with a pandemic that has brought world powers to their knees, foreign policy might seem far from the minds of leaders in Tehran. The country has confirmed some 75,000 cases of the coronavirus, resulting in over 4,700 deaths (as of April 15) that include a dozen current and former officials. Nonetheless, the severity of the outbreak has raised questions about ties between China and Iran. While other countries were restricting travel from China in a bid to slow the coronavirus, Iranian policymakers were touting their connections in Beijing.
Despite the increasing rapidity of the coronavirus’ spread from China to the rest of the world in late January and early February, Iranian leaders expressed little appetite for severing links to one of their country’s last well-resourced allies. The United States implemented crippling economic sanctions on Iran in 2018, and even the European leaders opposed to the American action started to distance themselves from Iran after the country accelerated its nuclear program.
Ignoring pressure from the U.S., China demonstrated few qualms about purchasing petroleum from Iran after 2018.
Ignoring pressure from the U.S. State Department and Treasury, China demonstrated few qualms about purchasing petroleum from Iran after 2018. If Iranian officials blocked travel to and from China, they would risk this financial lifeline and the future of their country’s economy as a whole.
At first, Iran’s leaders asserted that their constituents had little to fear from the coronavirus. On February 7, the country’s state-owned media boasted that China was thanking Iran for donating three million medical masks from Iranian stockpiles. Days earlier, an Iranian expert had called on his government to ban exports of face masks to China lest Iran deplete its own supply. Iranian officials heeded his advice and imposed the ban on February 4, yet the donations moved forward as a demonstration of Iranian soft power as well as a show of solidarity with China.
In addition to Iran’s halfhearted attempt to keep its supply of surgical masks within its borders, the country sent a slew of contradictory signals about the severity of the coronavirus with other aspects of its health policy. On the one hand, Iran announced that Chinese could no longer enter its territory via international flights on February 1. On the other, Iranian officials looked keen to salvage their relationship with China, lauding its “successful” efforts to combat the coronavirus.
Iranian authorities proved eager to keep a lid on the coronavirus issue and prevent it from tarnishing Chinese–Iranian relations.
Though Iran was taking several steps in early February to brace itself for the growing likelihood that the coronavirus would reach its borders, Iranian authorities proved eager to keep a lid on the issue and prevent it from tarnishing Chinese–Iranian relations. On February 6, the Iranian Cyber Police detained a pair of Iranians for spreading what Iranian officials labeled fake news about the outbreak. These efforts could do little to stop the reality that was fast coming for the leadership in Tehran, however: by mid-February, the coronavirus had breached Iran’s defenses.
On February 19, Iran confirmed that an Iranian businessman returning from the Chinese city of Wuhan, ground zero for the outbreak, had brought the coronavirus to the Iranian holy place of Qom. A little over a week later, one of the country’s most prominent vice presidents, Masoumeh Ebtekar, admitted that she too had contracted the illness. Plenty of other officials followed.
It took little time for signs to emerge that Iran’s strategy had backfired. Instead of heralding one of the few allies that had enabled Iran to weather devastating American sanctions, many Iranians began to blame China for spreading the coronavirus to Iran; an Iranian official even questioned China’s claims about bringing the pandemic under control. In a tragicomic twist, Iranian officials soon found themselves short on face masks because they had delivered so many of their own to China. Today, China is returning the favor by sending surgical masks to Iran in addition to deploying Chinese doctors there.
Experts can only guess whether Iran might have averted its health crisis by sealing itself off from China at an earlier date.
At this point, experts can only guess at whether Iran might have averted an ongoing health crisis by sealing itself off from China at an earlier date and in a more consistent manner. The overall effectiveness of such bans remains far from clear. Italy became one of the first countries to block flights from China, and U.S. President Donald Trump canceled flights from China and Europe alike. Even so, this aggressive strategy did little to stop American and Italian cities from turning into epicenters of the coronavirus.
Iranian officials and some experts have cited American sanctions as constricting Iran’s ability to respond to the coronavirus. While Iran may be trying to redirect its citizens’ anger at its clumsy handling of the pandemic, American sanctions have made providing humanitarian aid to Iran far more challenging. Many of Iran’s difficulties, though, seem self-inflicted.
Iran’s leaders refused to acknowledge the extent of the threat presented by the coronavirus before it hit Iran. When the outbreak arrived at last, they proved ill prepared. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has rejected an offer of American assistance, quoting a Chinese conspiracy theory that American scientists designed the coronavirus to cripple China. All the while, the pandemic is infecting more Iranian officials, among them one of Khamenei’s advisors.
Iran’s leader rejected U.S. assistance, quoting a conspiracy theory that U.S. scientists designed the coronavirus to cripple China.
Iran has little to show for its attempt to preserve its links to China, which Iranian officials upheld by overlooking a health crisis. The coronavirus has shuttered Iran’s economy, and Iranians are complaining about the shipments of face masks to China. Iran has also contributed to the spread of the coronavirus to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and several Arab neighbors, worsening a persistent cold war between Iranian officials and their opponents in Abu Dhabi, Manama, and Riyadh. The diplomatic fallout of Iran’s medical failures could prove as fatal as the economic damage.
In the future, China may reward Iran’s ill-fated show of solidarity with financial assistance. For the time being, though, officials in Beijing are dealing with their own diplomatic nightmare: the international community has criticized China’s bungled coverup of the outbreak as a reason for its spread across the world. For now, the pandemic has left Iran more isolated than ever.
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