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The Coronavirus Could Kill Millions. U.S.-Iran Hostilities Will Make It Worse.

Countless lives in America, Iran, and Iraq depend on leaders’ willingness to put down the sabers and cooperate.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Not long ago, just after the new year was rung in, Americans watched and worried as an exchange of rocket and missile attacks on Iraqi soil brought the United States and Iran to the brink of war. The rockets and missiles are still flying in Iraq—at least four attacks in the past week, likely by Iranian-linked militias, killing two U.S. soldiers and one Briton. The U.S. has responded with air strikes and increased sanctions, both of which put civilians at risk

None of this has been at the top of your news feed, as governments have pivoted to the all-consuming effort to quell the coronavirus before it kills millions of people. Iran and the U.S. are being hit particularly hard by the virus and its broader effects. So is Iraq, where stability is urgently needed to save its people from disease and ruin. But as the pandemic grows, the threats between leaders in Washington and Tehran persist, along with proxy violence in Iraq. If these leaders fail to defer their animosities, all three nations will suffer the costs.  

This is a moment for dialogue, de-escalation, and humanitarian gestures. Having already shown the damaging futility of more rockets, threats, and punitive sanctions, America and Iran should talk directly and seek a temporary truce, inside Iraq and beyond. That way, both countries can devote their full resources to combating a plague that threatens to kill more Americans, Iranians, and Iraqis in the next few months than years of bloody skirmishes ever could. 

In Iran, already under crushing U.S. sanctions, the pandemic spread early and has struck several Cabinet ministers and parliamentarians. Last Tuesday, as reports continued to stream out about Tehran’s botched, dishonest response to the crisis, state television cited a university report warning that millions of Iranians could ultimately die. And yet, rather than focus all its energies internally, Iran’s government acquiesced to—and quite possibly directed—an attack campaign by allied Iraqi militias on Americans inside Iraq. Whatever Tehran’s motivation and degree of direct involvement may be, the Iranian leadership has the capacity to halt these attacks, and its failure to prevent them is breathtakingly irresponsible. 

But in its own way, America’s response has been breathtakingly irresponsible, too. Instead of showing statesmanship in a global crisis, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used a press conference last Wednesday to announce fresh sanctions on Iran and goad the Tehran government for its response to what he called “the Wuhan virus.” Without offering any specifics, Pompeo promised “an open humanitarian channel to facilitate legitimate transactions even while ensuring our maximum pressure campaign denies terrorists money.” That was a far cry from late 2003, when the George W. Bush administration temporarily suspended sanctions and airlifted needed materials to Iran after a cataclysmic earthquake there killed tens of thousands of people.

The sanctions framework that anchors the Trump administration’s so-called “maximum pressure campaign” has already chilled international assistance to Iran and further hampered the country’s ability to deal with the health crisis. Pompeo is likely to look even more myopic in light of the humanitarian tsunami crashing over Iran: His belligerence will only reinforce for Iranians the image of a callous America choosing to bully Iran’s regime as its people suffer. Nor is it a strategy that does much for Americans’ safety: Every minute in the White House Situation Room that Trump or his senior national security team spends managing escalations with Iran is time not spent fighting the life-and-death pandemic at home.

Iraq confronts the coronavirus without a government in place. Iraq’s ineffectual prime minister, hamstrung by pressure from Iraqi militias and neglect from Washington, abandoned the job after the Soleimani killing. Millions of Iraq’s people live in urban slums; hundreds of thousands more Sunnis, displaced from areas once ruled by ISIS, are still living in tent camps, where social distancing will be impossible. Absent swift and affirmative action, the coronavirus could spread quickly among the most vulnerable Iraqis. Yet the country’s political elites remain enmeshed in their parochial interests, unable to unite around new leadership at this critical moment. 

In the void left by American leadership, regional powers are stepping up. The United Arab Emirates—which has often been divided internally over its policies toward Iran—airlifted medical supplies to the afflicted nation this week. Instead of standing in the way, as it has with recent Emirati-Iranian diplomacy, America should encourage this humanitarian thaw between the UAE and Iran, expand it to include Saudi Arabia, and extend it to other issues. Nobody is suggesting a neat outcome settling all claims between America and Iran. But the two countries can both take immediate steps to achieve a humanitarian pause that reduces the risk of unwanted conflict and lets both sides focus their finite attention and resources on the health emergency at hand. 

Iran should act assertively to rein in its Iraqi militia allies and release dual-nationals it has imprisoned. On Thursday, Iran granted Michael White, a U.S. citizen held in Iran since 2018, a medical furlough and released him to the custody of the Swiss Embassy in Tehran. This should be seen as a positive first step, but it needs to spur further Iranian action and subsequent gestures by the U.S. 

The U.S. should encourage further regional support for Iran’s coronavirus response while easing sanctions to allow the unimpeded entry of humanitarian relief. The U.S. government wrongly contends that Iran can access any needed medical supplies through a recently established Swiss humanitarian channel, but it’s of little use in a global health crisis such as this, where Western nations are not well positioned to steward the supply of life-saving aid.

If Iran abuses the relaxation of sanctions, the U.S. and the international community will have ample reason to deal with the issue after the current crisis has subsided—without having further endangered Iranian civilians at their time of greatest need. And Iraq should take this opportunity to establish a functioning government that acts fast to protect its displaced and vulnerable citizens. 

The world after the coronavirus will look different. In weeks, America’s and Iran’s priorities have already shifted in ways that will outlast this pandemic. This is a moment to move away from policies that don’t contribute meaningfully to human survival around the globe. America’s current approach to Iran unnecessarily risks more death and destruction, even if it never results in another rocket or gun fired. There has never been a better time to change course.