Middle East and the COVID factor
By Tamseel Aqdas
Inarguably, Covid-19 entangled the world conclusively off-guard, and has single handedly altered the security dynamics of numerous regions, with the utmost projections in the Middle East. Veritably, a squabble contend is that, the Middle East shall be intertwined in more chaos, despite its already crippling economic, social and political frameworks. To begin, the United States of America and the Islamic Republic of Iran have long been foes in the expanse. Correspondingly, these states have assimilated the pandemic as a tool for their ambitions of reinforcing old strategies and narratives against one another. Being one of the hardest hit countries by the virus, the sanctions imposed on Iran by the USA interfered with Iran’s qualification of acquiring essential pharmaceutical and medical supplies in the international market.
The markets were placed in menace of retribution of breaking US regulations by trading with Iran; thus, such engagements were sidestepped all together. The USA’s refusal for temporary easement of the sanction regime to facilitate Iran amidst the pandemic highlights its goals of capitalizing on vulnerability. To elaborate, the USA aspires to negotiate with the fragile state of Iran and confer them into abandoning their nuclear program; as, it threatens the USA’s authority over the Middle East. Conversely, on account of the USA’s withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal, impositions of sanctions threatening the existence of Iran and the assassination of Qasem Soleimani; Iran has retaliated with supreme pressure policies of targeting US oil tanker, facilities, military assets and personals. It can be argued that, Covid-19 can be integrated as an opportunity by Iran to further attack American forces; as, there will be diminutive risk of retaliationsamid aberration of the pandemic. Overall, Covid-19 has instigated both states to seek advantages of escalation, generating a security dilemma exposing a greater military conflict in the Middle East.
On another angle, the effects of Covid-19 contain potency of solidifying the rise of China in the Middle East. The state took benefit of the turmoil subsequent of the pandemic to integrate its influence across the region. To begin, China took convenience from the USA’s missteps of absence of support to the Middle East during the contagion; thus, it dispatched medical teams and sent 250,000 masks to states in prerequisite, such as Iran and Syria. This directly amplified the trust of Middle Eastern states in China, rather than the US. In addition, China has established profound economic ties throughout the expanse. With respect to Iraq, China has renowned itself as its largest oil and gas trading partner. Iraqi shipments to China have increased by 30% in 2020 and have accounted for a third of Iraq’s total exports. Similarly, in the case of Afghanistan, Afghan and Pakistani officials have reported that, Beijing has reputable control of the Afghan peace process, and shall deliver the Taliban extravagant energy and infrastructure investment following the USA’s exit. Moreover, a 25-year comprehensive strategic partnership agreement has been established between Iran and China. Overall, these steps counter the USA’s presence in the Middle East; since, economic conditions of states that the US essentially crippled historically heading towards development. Thus, proving how Covid-19 has altered the strategic dynamics of the Middle East.
The effects Covid-19 also predicts the entrenchment of dictatorship and weakening of democracy throughout the Middle East. The Arab Spring projected widespread protests in response to poor governance, rampant corruption, and economic crises induced by dictators. Thus, the regional governments are predominantly vulnerable in the arouse of Covid-19, due to the lack of health care facilities. As a result, the governments may crackdown on genuine protests and speech, beneath the semblance of security and public health. Meaning, the contagion shall be incorporated as a tool to further imbed authoritarianism. For example, in the case of Lebanon, social media is being incorporated to track and target protesters and political dissenters. Furthermore, the Egyptian authorities have increased censorship under the disguise of preventing fake news penetrating towards the virus. However, in reality the pandemic has been forsaken as an opportunity to crackdown on the people of Egypt. Surprisingly enough, even renowned democracies, such as Israel, have employed the corona card. It is argued that, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may for seek an opportunity amid the corona chaos to defer his trails on corruption.
On an altering note, although Covid-19 threatens the influence of democracy, in the post-pandemic world, the presently tenuous state of Iran may emerge stronger in the region. This is because, studies have projected that exceedingly pathogenic pandemics with short incubation periods and unidentified treatments, undertake social fears that modify the day-to-day power struggles of pretentious countries. To elaborate, pandemics tend to reduce civil unrest and dissident activities; consequently, regimes incline to arise stronger and with political stability. For example, the Ebola outbreak in 2014, did not prompt to substantial political unrest in the fragile African state, despite predictions of the UN Security Council and the WHO officials. A similar pattern is eminent in Iran; since, political debates have shifted from factionalism to conjunctions of policies on containment of the virus. In fact, despite their distinctions, the government and military formed a considerable joint operation against the infection. Thus, the pandemic introduced cooperation in the Republic of Iran, which can potentially proceed Iran out of its continuous internal crisis.
Altogether, though just a virus, Covid-19 has distinctly shifted the dynamics of the Middle Eastern region. As a whole, chaos is catalyzing and increasing the security dilemma between conflicting parties, such as the USA and Iran. Moreover, an expanse predominantly swayed by the USA, has adapted a shift towards the state of China, along with the rise of authoritarianism. Nevertheless, numerous additional factors also inspire the dynamics of the Middle East; thus, the true projections of the post-pandemic implications may alter respectively.
Tamseel Aqdas is an undergraduate student of Peace and Conflict Studies at National Defence University, Islamabad