Coronavirus shakes up the Middle East

Mar 20, 2020 | AIJAC staff

People pass in front of the emergency entrance of the government-run Rafik Hariri Hospital, Beirut, Lebanon, March 11, 2020 (Hussein Malla, AP)
People pass in front of the emergency entrance of the government-run Rafik Hariri Hospital, Beirut, Lebanon, March 11, 2020 (Hussein Malla, AP)

Update from AIJAC

03/20 #03

Following up on the previous Update detailing Israeli and Palestinian efforts to cope with the coronavirus crisis, here is an Update focussed on how countries and groups across the wider Middle East are dealing with it.

We lead with a good survey of the situation across the Mideast region from Liz Sly of the Washington Post emphasising the hardship likely to be endured by people already often facing violence, unrest and warfare. She also notes that the coronavirus crisis comes on top of other serious crises in various countries, from Lebanon’s financial meltdown to an oil price collapse likely to have negative effects on numerous states, but especially in Iraq, already suffering political instability. Meanwhile, the war-wracked Syria, Yemen and Libya claim they have no coronavirus cases, but this is likely due to a lack of testing, and victims in those countries are likely to struggle to get any healthcare at all. For this bleak and pessimistic survey of a region potentially under even more threat from the coronavirus than the rest of the world, CLICK HERE. Another analysis questioning the ability of most regional states to cope comes from Israeli academic Edy Cohen. 

Next up is veteran columnist Yossi Melman of the left-leaning Israeli-daily Haaretz, who sees one positive benefit in the coronavirus crisis in the Middle East, a temporary reduction in violence. He notes how the ongoing Iran-Israel small-scale war is at a low ebb, and military and intelligence forces in various countries, including Israel, are being turned toward assisting civil authorities with this crisis. He particularly discusses Iran, the most hard-hit country in the region, and suggests signs that the virus may force it to rethink its aggressive activities around the Middle East, especially given Iran’s already shaky situation in the face of tough US sanctions. For Melman’s full discussion of a possible regional coronavirus “truce”,  CLICK HERE. Supporting this view, a leading IDF spokesperson recently told the media that there has been a decrease in hostile enemy activity targeting Israel thanks to the coronavirus crisis.

Finally, Mehdi Khalaji, a top Iranian politics specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, discusses the Iranian regime’s efforts to cope with the coronavirus crisis in more detail (following up on a piece he wrote last week on the response to the virus among the Iranian clergy). He says that while the restive Iranian population has only gotten more angry and panicked, the regime has left little room for the population to organise around health or any other issue, and has essentially destroyed civil society in Iran. He also looks at the regime’s strategies of concealing unpleasant information on social problems from the public, and blaming all problems on foreign hostility, and discusses some policy implications for foreign governments of the current situation in Iran. To read his detailed analysis,  CLICK HERE.

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The Middle East is already wracked by war. Now it must confront the coronavirus, too.


Left: Muslim pilgrims walk around the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca on February 27, 2020. Right: The same site a few weeks later, after a closure was imposed by Saudi Authorities.


By Liz Sly 
Washington Post, March 17, 2020

BEIRUT — The Middle East is shutting down as the novel coronavirus accelerates its spread across a part of the world where war, famine, financial collapse and political unrest threaten to compound the impact of the disease.

The vast majority of the 16,659 infections reported in the region as of Monday are in Iran, one of the world’s worst-hit countries and the origin of most of the 1,692 cases counted in other Middle Eastern and North African countries.

As the numbers climb around the region, governments are starting to act, upending life in a part of the world that has historically served as a crossroads of religion, trade and travel.

Prayers are being canceled, bars and cafes closed, flights grounded, and festivals and pilgrimages called off. The al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and the Shiite Muslim shrine in Karbala, Iraq, are among the great religious sites that have been closed. Barbar, a beloved Lebanese eatery renowned for having stayed open throughout the country’s long civil war, has shut for the first time in memory.

Iraq is bracing for the imposition of a curfew starting Tuesday after the government declared a state of emergency. Lebanon began a two-week lockdown on Monday, and Saudi Arabia ordered government offices, businesses and malls to close.

Trade and travel are skidding to a halt. Saudi Arabia has suspended all travel in and out of the kingdom. The United Arab Emirates has suspended flights to many locations and stopped issuing visas, but said on Tuesday it would continue to allow visa-free entry to many countries, including the United States. Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq are sealing their borders and will close their airports within days.

The interruption of economic activity is going to exact a heavy toll on the region’s already struggling citizens at a time of severe economic strain, political instability and conflict, analysts say.

“There’s a series of cascading crises which ultimately feed into one another, an interconnected web of catastrophes,” said Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “These countries are not facing one; they are facing two or three crises simultaneously.”

Worshipers pray in front of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem’s Old City after al-Aqsa Mosque was closed because of the coronavirus. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

A decade of upheaval since the Arab Spring revolts has ravaged economies that were in trouble before the coronavirus crashed global markets.

The oil price war launched by Saudi Arabia — partly as a consequence of the coronavirus and the collapse in worldwide demand — has cratered prices, threatening economies across the region.

Oil producers in the Persian Gulf countries will be forced to cut back spending, and countries elsewhere that depend on remittances from expatriates in the gulf region will also suffer, said Nasser Saidi, a Dubai-based economist and former Lebanese finance minister.

Lebanon is in the throes of a financial crisis that has seen its currency collapse amid widespread street protests. Iraq, which depends on oil for almost all its income, will be badly hit at a time when political protests there have rocked the country.

The region will almost certainly slide into recession, Saidi said.

“It means unemployment will get worse. It means socioeconomic conditions will deteriorate. There will be more distress, more social problems and more political protests,” he said. “It’s not a pretty picture for the Middle East.”

Meanwhile, wars are raging in Syria, Yemen and Libya, which have not reported any cases but are home to millions of people who are impoverished, hungry and uniquely vulnerable to the spread of disease. Millions more are crowded into refugee camps and settlements in surrounding countries, where diseases spread rapidly, said Fabrizio Carboni, Middle East director for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“Even, quote, advanced countries are struggling,” he said. “One can only imagine what the situation will be like in countries affected by conflict.”

Many of the region’s authoritarian governments are notoriously opaque, and there are widespread suspicions that some countries aren’t acknowledging the scale of their problems. Though Syria insists it has detected no coronavirus cases, health experts say it is unlikely to have escaped a virus that has embedded itself among its neighbors.

With the exception of some wealthy Arab gulf countries, health-care systems lag far behind those of the Western and Asian countries that are barely able to cope — and they are likely to be even more overwhelmed, said Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Meanwhile, the wealthier countries on which they typically rely for aid during moments of crisis will be consumed with their own coronavirus challenges.

“This is going to supercharge and exacerbate all the existing problems at a time when every other country in the world will be focusing on the crisis at home and their own needs,” he said.

It may already be too late to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus in a region where the biggest countries were slow to wake up to the severity of the risk and to warn citizens of the dangers.

The realization that the Iranian government has been less than transparent about the toll exacted by the virus’s spread has spooked countries with large Shiite populations that travel and interact extensively with Iran, for reasons of politics, religion and trade.

Lebanon and Bahrain, with large Shiite populations, are reporting some of the highest growth rates in infections. The numbers are relatively small, but so are their populations, and on a per capita basis, they have rates as high as the fast-growing ones in European countries such as Britain and Germany.

Police in Beirut ask a jogger to leave the area on Monday, a day after the government urged people to stay at home for two weeks. (Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images)

Iran’s closest neighbor, Iraq, has reported relatively few cases compared to its size — 110 infections and nine deaths — but there are fears the toll could be higher. After the extent of the problem in Iran began to emerge last month, Iraq swiftly barred entry to Iranians. But until last week, Iraqis continued to travel back and forth across the country’s long border with Iran.

Adham Ismail, the World Health Organization’s Iraq representative, said the number of infections could be higher by a few hundred, probably mild cases. There is, however, no reason to believe that a major spread is imminent, he said. Keeping the numbers as low as they are so far has been “a medical miracle,” he said.

But if there were to be a rapid escalation, the disease would quickly overwhelm Iraq’s limited health resources. The country has used up 80 percent of the approximately 6,000 testing kits delivered so far and is waiting for more, Ismail said. Years of war and rampant corruption have hollowed out its once superior health system, and there aren’t enough respirators or ventilation equipment to deal with a much larger outbreak, he said.

Even countries with relatively sophisticated health systems, such as Lebanon, will be swamped if the numbers climb higher, said Souha Kanj, who heads the infectious diseases department at the American University of Beirut. She added she believes they will.

Expatriates returning from Egypt, Syria and Lebanon wait be tested for the virus in Kuwait City on Monday. (Yasser Al-Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images)

Lebanon has imported cases from Egypt, Iran, China, France and the United Kingdom, but the most recent infections suggest community transmission is taking hold, making it harder to contain the spread of the disease, she said. Kanj said she suspects the real number of cases could be hundreds higher than the official number because of people failing to report their symptoms.

Only Egypt has yet to take any significant steps to combat the spread of the coronavirus, despite mounting evidence that it could be the origin of dozens of infections worldwide, including in the United States and parts of the Middle East. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Sunday that 60 infections had been found in 15 states linked to Nile cruises.

Coronavirus ‘Truce’: The Guns Falling Silent Across the Middle East


A sudden quiet reverberates around one of the most troubled, violent regions on earth. Israel’s military is mirroring the enforced restraint shown by Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas – for now

Yossi Melman

Haaretz, Mar 16, 2020

Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip, closed for coronavirus concerns. March 15, 2020.AFP

The novel coronavirus pandemic has thus far verified an adapted version of the saying – attributed to a Soviet Union official during WWII and paraphrased by Truman Capote – that “When the guns roar, the muses are silent.”

But our reality now is that when the virus roars and spreads, the guns are silenced. A sudden, relative quiet reverberates across the Middle East – one of the most troubled and violent regions on earth. From Iran to Libya, from Syria to Yemen and from Israel to Lebanon, the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza, the number of violent incidents has dramatically diminished.

Guns may crush creativity, but the coronavirus –  the uncertainty and fear of the unknown – is paralyzing familiar patterns of behavior.

But the region is drastically unused to this form of force majeure – and can’t sustain zero violence. In recent days, three soldiers – two from the U.S., one from the UK –  were killed in an attack in Iraq, most probably by a pro-Iranian militia; in response, U.S. warplanes and drones hit militia positions killing a few Iraqi militiamen and, in an unconfirmed report, a senior Iranian officer. In the West Bank, a 15 year-old Palestinian boy was killed after clashes with Israeli troops.

Leaders and military commanders of sworn enemies are pre-occupied by the coronavirus crisis. They have had to put the mindset of violent provocation and retaliation on hold. Over the last few weeks, we’ve heard minimal inflammatory rhetoric and only small doses of aggression. That modified behavior is the same regardless of whether those national or factional leaders really care for their people’s health and well-being or are acting out of fear that public rage will turn against them and destabilize their power base or regime.

We’ve even heard declarations that are so surprising it’s no exaggeration to dub them as unprecedented. The terror group that sanctifies violence, ISIS, issued instructions for how to deal with the virus which were almost identical to the rest of the world, from handwashing to avoiding travel within Europe – with one exception – a strong emphasis on relying on Allah.

In Iran, the Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi declared a few days ago that it was permitted to use an Israeli anti-corona vaccine “if there is no other alternative.” That was in response to reports that were, at the least, dramatically premature: that Israel’s Institute for Biological Research had already developed a corona vaccine. The institute and private laboratories are working on it, but openly admitted that it would take many months probably a year to research, develop and produce an effective and reliable vaccine.

Many countries across the region share another common trait: a reliance on the military to assist civil society in times of crisis.

In Israel, with its mighty army and technological and other resources, the military will supervise three major healthcare centers to treat lightly-affected patients, in order to vacant hospital beds for more serious cases. Just as the National Guard has been mobilized in the state of New York, 2000 reservists from Israel’s Homeland Command have been called up in case they’re needed as an auxiliary force to assist the civil authorities.

Israel has also decided to quarantine almost every serving soldier in their bases, in order to isolate them from the rest of the society and preserve its defensive fighting force. Such a mandate will also cut down on the movement of large numbers of people around the country, including on public transport, thus helping to minimize the number of carriers and victims, still are relatively low, with over 250 infected but so far no deaths.

The coronavirus emergency has forced Israel’s intelligence community – Shin Bet, Mossad and military intelligence (Aman) – to adapt themselves to the new reality. Thanks to travel bans and restrictions on face-to-face meetings, their collection methods have to be modified. They must minimize what is called humint (running agents) and expand the use of technological measures – digital devices, cyber, big data analysis and so on.

In Iran too, the Revolutionary Guards, army and police are mobilized for the battle against the virus. In Lebanon, the army and Hezbollah are also working hand in hand to contain the disease. Even in Hamas-ruled Gaza and in the Palestinian Authority – with their limited capabilities – the police, the military and security bodies play a dominant rule.

Firefighters disinfect a street against the new coronavirus, in western Tehran, Iran, March 13, 2020. (Vahid Salemi, AP)

Iran has been worse hit by the virus than any other country in the region, with the official death count over 700 and with more than 14,000 sick, one quarter of them in Tehran. However the Iranian regime is not known for its truth-telling: the actual figures could be twice as high. Even with its official statistics, Iran ranks third in the world, after China and Italy. Hundreds of Iranian officials and military commanders – some in senior positions – have been infected by the virus. According to opposition groups (not always the most reliable sources) dozens of them have died.

Iran has been also identified as a major proliferator of the virus to Iraq (10 deaths) and Lebanon (three). Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia have so far been spared a death toll.

Even without COVID-19, Iran’s situation was fragile. The sanctions imposed by President Trump nearly two years ago dramatically escalated a deterioration in economic, social and health conditions. Now the situation is even harsher with the drop in oil prices, its main source of revenue.

To restrain the public anger and divert attention from the regime’s long term negligence, some officials and religious leaders have pointed the finger at Israel and the West, propagating conspiracy theories, filled with anti-Semitism- that the Jews have deliberately spread the virus.

For Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and its Quds Force (whose commander General Qassem Soleimani was assassinated in a U.S. drone attack two months ago), the new and troubling circumstances have triggered a moment to pause and reflect. They have withdrawn from extending their presence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen and, in some cases, have even reduced it.

For now, Israel’s military is acting as Tehran’s mirror image: a model of restraint. There have been no recent reports of major attacks by the Israeli Air Force against Iranian and pro-Iranian militia positions in Syria or Iraq. Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon have also tended to respect the de facto coronavirus cease-fire.

In the virus’ shadow, Israel realizes that neither the Palestinian Authority nor Hamas have the luxury or breathing space to initiate and trigger violence right now. And geographical proximity and the simple scientific fact that the virus doesn’t distinguish between borders, people soil, air and water means that they have to cooperate. And indeed they are.

Israel and PA medical teams are sharing information, best practice, ideas and equipment. To reduce the potential damage to the already weak Palestinian economy, Israel has postponed a full closure of the border to allow a limited number of Palestinian workers to enter Israel. Israel has even sent medical supplies to Hamas.

It would be quite wrong, though, to imagine that the coronavirus will birth a completely new Middle East. It is far more realistic to recognize that the cessation of violence will be temporary. Once the virus is defeated, all parties will return to the all-too-familiar square one of continued fighting, animosity and hatred. As history has always shown, ideology is stronger than human dignity and decency.

Yet it might not be completely utopian to hope the coronavirus emergency will result in minor cracks in this wall of zealotry, not least by reminding all the peoples of the Middle East how fragile life is – and how death by pandemic doesn’t differentiate by ideology.

The Coronavirus in Iran (Part 2): Regime Culpability and Resiliency

Mehdi Khalaji 

Bank employees wear protective face masks, following the outbreak of coronavirus, as they pose for a photo in Tehran, March 17, 2020

Iran’s ongoing coronavirus epidemic has left the people with less reason than ever to trust the information and directives issued by their leaders. Part 1 of this PolicyWatch discussed the clergy’s role in aggravating this problem, but the state’s mistakes and deceptions have been legion as well. They include scandalous discrepancies between official reports after a period of denial that the virus had entered the country; a health system that was unprepared to deal with such a disease promptly and properly; and official resistance to implementing internationally recommended precautionary measures, such as canceling flights from China and quarantining the center of the outbreak. These decisions have sown widespread confusion about facts and fictions related to the virus, the most effective medically proven ways to control it, and the degree to which it is spreading throughout the country. As a result, an already restive population has become increasingly panicked about the future and angry at the state.

Yet can the coronavirus actually bring down the regime? The harsh reality is that the state has left little space for opposition to organize around health issues, or any issues for that matter. Instead, it has sought to confuse the people and redirect their anger toward external enemies, even as its own policies contribute to the crisis.


In response to health and social challenges like the current epidemic, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his circle frequently resort to two tactics: ideological exploitation and political paranoia. The first centers on Khamenei’s insistence that the regime’s brand of Islam has a solution for all of society’s problems. To prop up this claim against ample evidence to the contrary, the state consistently categorizes data on major social problems as classified information and releases misleading or contradictory reports. For example, despite the growing prevalence of drug addiction among school students, Education Minister Muhammad Bathai has refused to reveal the related statistics. Hassan Mousavi, head of the Iran Association of Social Workers, has complained about the state’s denial of such widespread social problems and its resistance to making the data public. Even parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani has criticized the government’s policy of classifying statistics related to addiction, divorce, and other issues.

The second tactic involves telling the public that Iran’s foreign enemies are bent on treating Muslim bodies as another battlefield on which to destroy Islam. For instance, Khamenei and other authorities have repeatedly accused Western governments of maliciously attempting to lower the birthrate in Muslim societies. In September 2010, he stated: “Westerners are against demographic growth among Muslims…We should not do things in a way that they reach their goal…The decline in birthrate is a very important issue. What is best for our enemies…is that Iran’s population remains around twenty or thirty million people…If they could plan for such an objective they would, they spend money, certainly they spend money.” In his view, even the domestic increase in drug addiction is the “enemy’s conspiracy.”

Another example of this paranoia is transgenic food products. In a February 2016 interview with the Khamenei-controlled newspaper Kayhan, biotechnology expert Ali Karami extensively argued that “transgenic products are Zionism’s conspiracy against the Muslim population.”

Even financial corruption and crime are blamed on the West. For example, in December 2013, Khamenei argued, “One of the effects of the enemies’ cultural invasion is the increasing rate of armed robbery from banks. We have seen it in [American] movies.”

Regarding coronavirus, Khamenei’s initial reaction on February 23 was to characterize “this new disease” as the enemy’s “pretext” to discourage Iranians from voting in the February parliamentary election, giving him a readymade excuse when his fears of plummeting turnout were in fact born out. This claim was followed by President Hassan Rouhani’s warning that the virus was becoming the “enemy’s weapon” to shut down the country.


Under the Islamic Republic’s brand of authoritarianism, all independent networks, organizations, institutions, and campaigns are treated as potential threats to state security, regardless of their nature, mission, and impact—including those that benefit the public health. Furthermore, phenomena that a democratic government would define as social disorders or health deficiencies are usually categorized by Tehran as security concerns. This posture often entails blocking nongovernmental actors from intervening in these issues and criminalizing any individual or institution that attempts to get involved.

For example, according to a 2011 Amnesty International report, the Iranian doctors Kamiar Alaei and his brother Arash Alaei were imprisoned from 2008 to 2011 on charges of “cooperating with an enemy government.” Their actual “crime”? Founding an NGO for prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS. Last week, the brothers wrote a New York Times op-ed titled “How Iran Completely and Utterly Botched Its Response to the Coronavirus.” The article began: “We were doctors in the Iranian health system for years. This is what happens when you make health policy subservient to politics.”

Indeed, Tehran’s lack of transparency and systematic deception regarding the coronavirus is anything but a new behavior. Many citizens are now deeply suspicious of government claims about health issues by default, even when they lack access to accurate data sources that would confirm their mistrust. For instance, when authorities issued contradictory announcements last fall about the unusually high rate of AIDS infection in the province of Chaharmahol and Bakhtiari, street protests soon erupted. The public’s anger was exacerbated when the regime refused to take responsibility for a local medical center’s practice of using HIV-contaminated syringes, instead blaming foreign media and domestic political opponents. On October 19, Health Minister Saeed Namaki insisted that the matter was “classified.”

The regime has taken a similarly politicized approach to disaster relief. When major flooding struck Kermanshah province in May 2019, many nongovernmental institutions, sports stars, and celebrities managed to raise large sums of money and provide significant aid to the people in need. In response, government media criticized their luxurious lifestyle and complained about their legal tax exemptions, generating significant public resentment toward many celebrities who had previously been well-liked. Such systematic humiliation is Tehran’s way of preventing any alternative authority from taking independent action when citizens come under threat, whether due to the state’s aggression or its incompetence.

Social media and the Internet have done little to break this overwhelming grip. When crises like the coronavirus emerge, even experienced Iranian Internet users are exposed to limitless messages with conflicting, misleading, or manipulative information, much of it disseminated via the regime’s potent cyber capabilities. Most users are therefore quite susceptible to believing and facilitating virtual mass campaigns even if their content winds up sowing misinformation and confusion.

The proliferation of anti-regime campaigns does not necessarily alleviate this problem, especially when some of them tend toward propaganda themselves. When the coronavirus first emerged, regime reports about the crisis failed to persuade many Iranians. Yet the public was similarly skeptical when anti-regime websites and satellite television networks spread dramatically different reports without proof (though in some cases such proof was impossible to obtain given the regime’s deliberate withholding of disease statistics).


On paper, the regime’s defining traits seem like a self-destructive combination: declining domestic credibility, international isolation, minimal competence to carry out its basic duties, ceaseless use of violence to maintain control, and an exhausting, defiant, utopian push to expand its hegemony abroad. Perhaps the recent string of crises will make that self-destruction more likely to materialize at some point.

Yet even if the regime founders, the damage it has done to Iranian society leaves little hope for a smooth, speedy transition to a democratic, relatively U.S.-friendly state in the near term. The public is struggling with a profound social trust deficit, the disintegration of shared values, and deep burnout after years of regime aggression and humiliation—all of which would likely delay or abort the strong social and moral solidarity needed to birth a truly promising regime alternative any time soon. Instead, many citizens are focused on just surviving, and have adopted deeply cynical worldviews that create a disturbing sense of living in a lawless space rather than a functioning nation.

In all likelihood, then, only a small subset of actors would be willing and able to fill the vacuum that follows the regime’s ultimate collapse—namely, existing factions that already hold the keys to Iran’s military arsenal and prisons. Such a replacement government would hardly choose to denounce the police state from which it was birthed, nor the defiant anti-Western animosity that has been Khamenei’s calling card.

Mehdi Khalaji is the Libitzky Family Fellow at The Washington Institute


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